Thursday, August 11, 2011

Weighed Down by the Truth: Shakespeare by the Sea’s Measure for Measure

As an English literature major, this is difficult for me to admit, but here it is: I don’t like Shakespeare. I want to like him. I should like him. I often pretend to like him, but I don’t. It seems to me that Shakespeare focuses habitually on the lackluster narratives. In Romeo and Juliet, the love story between Romeo and Rosaline always distracted me from the main action. (Ditto for the three witches in Macbeth.) And I agree with Tom Stoppard and W.S. Gilbert that Hamlet’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are far more intriguing than a self-centered Danish Prince. Naturally, the Shakespearean productions I find most interesting are the ones which embrace and capitalize on the back story. Shakespeare by the Sea (SBTS) is usually quite adept at this, and so I had grand expectations for their rendition of Measure for Measure. Specifically, I’d hoped they would elaborate on the history between Angelo and Mariana, which in Shakespeare’s version happens largely outside the main plot. Generally, I’d hoped for any unexpected interpretation they could offer. I was disappointed.

A Shakespearean theatre company has limited material to work with, even if Shakespeare is one of the most prolific playwrights at 37 full length plays. You can’t do the crowd-pleasing Romeo and Juliet every year. There is an art to choosing which of The Bard’s comedies, tragedies or histories you perform and a quality company chooses their drama based on what’s relevant to the culture in which they’re performing. In this regard, Measure for Measure is an ideal choice. The play’s commentary on how power and pride affect the interpretation of truth and justice is still central to our society: from America’s economic crisis (which producers would have known when they chose the play) to the tragic shootings in Norway (which they could not have known)

You can normally count on top-notch acting from SBTS, but even this component fell short on August 6. Although they began the production by offering an advance apology that this was only the third run and would we please pardon any mistakes, this seemed amateurish, even for a relaxed outdoor production. After discussion with my theatre companion, we decided that the acting was overly dramatic. Because the lines are delivered as-written in Elizabethan English, many modern viewers rely on facial cues and tonal inflection to fully understand the nuances of the plot. Most of us can get the general idea of what’s happening, yet delivering the subtleties is the job of the Shakespearean thespian. SBTS neglected these subtleties by overacting each line.

As usual, the audience warm up, announcement of intermission, and conclusion (all elements outside the actual play) were caustic, funny, and original. Costuming was also spot-on. If this sounds like a consolation prize, it certainly isn’t meant to be; it is well-earned praise. Angelo’s bowtie, slicked-back hair, too-short white pants and nurse’s orthopedics set him off as the self-deluded dufus that he is. Isabella’s nun’s habit was also inventive; the beret adding a twist that could have been replicated to other areas of the production.

After seeing SBTS’s adaptation of Robin Hood last month, I admittedly had very high expectations. But the only commonality was the actors. If you’ve watched plays by small theatre companies, you’ll appreciate how odd it is to see a performer act one night as a convincing fool and the next as a condescending duke. Kudos to the artists for switching roles this easily! Within a 48 hour period, most of them had to execute three different characters.

This production was a reviewer’s nightmare in its blandness. Usually if something is not good, at least it’s interesting. Perhaps that’s the problem with SBTS’s Measure for Measure: it was OK, precisely OK. No horrific flub-ups, just boring acting that one would expect to see on public television at 2am. I can’t think of much more to say. I could slip into reviewing the script itself, but then that’s not really the point. However, I do think the Measure for Measure script is elegant and simple in its treatment of complex human issues.

I suppose my lack of opinion on this production fits me into the role of other women in Measure for Measure. My favorite line from the play comes from Act 2 Scene IV when Angelo says to Isabella “Say what you can, my false o'erweighs your true” and then stomps off (the stomping happens in my mind, I think it was more of a stroll in SBTS’s version). In Measure for Measure, females are famously either silent or ignored. And once again, I’m confounded by the silence in what Shakespeare leaves out and what I’d hoped STBS would include. Does Isabella accept the Duke’s proposal of marriage in the final scene? Readers of Shakespeare are left to interpret the truth for themselves and the audience of SBTS does not receive any help in weighing the options.

Mari-Beth Slade is a marketer for an accounting firm in Halifax. She enjoys hearing new ideas and challenging assumptions. When not hard at work, she appreciates sharing food, wine and conversations with her family and friends.


  1. You don't like Shakespeare's plots(what of the language?) & you misspell 'preforming' twice . . . hey, where'd you get your degree? :) Just kidding. Bad acting can ruin anything although I didn't see this production.

  2. Critics at Large says: Boswell, thanks for pointing out the typos. They're now corrected. As any editor will tell you, typing errors happen. Degree or no degree.

  3. Maybe you should 'review' food and wine or something you know anything about, though I expect more of the same. I saw this production and it was fabulous. There was a wealth of subtlety and a feast of variance. A bad reviewer is one that spends their time talking about how their subject missed it's mark rather than telling the reader what was actually there; as if what was in their own head was the 'right' version. You revealed yourself in your own writing when you wished for a character to stomp off stage but not over act. I'd like to see you demonstrate this. I will abandon my preconceptions as to what this looks like so I can report accurately how you do.

    Maybe I'm too harsh. So there is no ambivalence in meaning, you are a blogger not a critic. 'Nuff said.

    -R. Kindle

  4. Mari-Beth Slade responds: Dear Mr. Kindle,

    Thank you for your passionate comment. We understand that each person has a different reaction to a piece of art. I still uphold my original comments that the production was muted, but I will offer a clarification on the apparent disconnect you point out between overacting and lack of stomping. To me, a performer overacts when she ignores the subtle opportunities that the script presents. When a performer decides ‘the character is sad, therefore I will act sad’ and continue this for the entire play, I call this overacting. In reality, characters are not always sad, nor happy, nor strolling, not stomping. Due to Elizabethan language, it is easy for Shakespearean actors to slip into overacting because every line is a reminder that they are indeed acting. Yet, because of this very language, for the sake of audience comprehension, it’s all the more important not to overact. In my opinion, actors need to consistently be the character, intimately know the script, but act each and every line specifically. As you acknowledge, this is easy for a writer to say and much more difficult for an actor to execute. I do appreciate how difficult it is; although as a reviewer I must hold actors to the highest standard.

    P.S. Is R. Kindle your real name? At Critics at Large we don’t hide behind pseudonyms – we stand behind our convictions and include our real names. Could you provide yours?