You may not consider yourself a “theater person.” You may be one of the many who feel a twinge of actual fear when contemplating reading — or even just seeing — a work by William Shakespeare. Regardless of your preconceptions or past experiences, I can’t encourage you enough to attend at least one of the performances at this year’s Colorado Shakespeare Festival. While the CSF has been doing great work for over 50 years, this season is really quite spectacular.
The third Shakespeare play of the festival, after the justly famous King Lear and The Taming of the Shrew, is the lesser-known Measure for Measure. Though classified as one of Billy’s comedies, Measure for Measure defies easy categorization. Humor, often of a determinedly bawdy sort, pervades the play, but among the copious laughs, one finds a great deal of commentary on the hypocritical nature of man, the value of mercy and the price of honor. It is also not every comedy in which a beheading plays a crucial role in the outcome of the story.
Set as originally intended in Vienna, Measure for Measure opens with the Duke Vicentio (Robert Sicular) embarking on a journey away from the city. In his absence, the Duke declares that his deputy, Angelo (Chip Persons), shall rule in his stead. Unbeknownst to Angelo or anyone else, the Duke never leaves the city but instead disguises himself as a priest so that he can observe how Angelo rules and learn how the citizens of Vienna truly feel about the Duke himself.
Angelo’s first act as ruler is to begin enforcing the laws against immoral behavior, laws that have been for the most part ignored up until that time. After learning that Claudio (Nick Henderson) has engaged in premarital sex with his fiancée, Juliet (Emily Van Fleet), a fact evidenced by Juliet’s obviously pregnant belly, Angelo orders Claudio put to death, per the statutes. In a last-ditch attempt to save himself, Claudio asks his sister and soon-to-be nun, Isabella (Lenne Klingaman), to beg Angelo for mercy.
When Isabella approaches Angelo she quickly learns that, like modern-day politicians who decry homosexuality but later turn out to be gay themselves, Angelo’s firm stance against immorality does not apply to himself. Angelo demands that the virgin Isabella have sex with him as the price to save Claudio’s life. Despite Claudio’s less-than-brotherly entreaties that Isabella should give in to Angelo’s extortion, she remains firm in her faith and refuses.
Still incognito as the priest, Duke Vicentio learns of Angelo’s treachery and puts a plan in motion that will not only expose Angelo for the scumbag that he is but also save Claudio’s life and Isabella’s virginity. As an added bonus, Duke Vicentio also gets revenge on Lucio (Timothy Orr), a man who repeatedly slanders the Duke to the priest (who, of course, is actually the Duke), and the priest to the Duke (who is, once again, the same person).
In a first in my years of experience with the CSF, Director Scott Williams elects to seat a portion of the audience on stage with the actors. I had my reservations about this approach and feared that it would leave too little space for the actors and prove a distraction to the “main” audience. Thankfully, Williams knew better, and the on-stage seating causes no ill effects.
Robert Sicular, whom I praised in his supporting role in King Lear, is a joy to behold as the Duke. As both the Duke and the priest, Sicular is hilarious to the extreme without ever becoming a caricature. He is ably aided by tremendous performances from Klingaman, whose Isabella is the only character who really has to express a full emotional range, and Orr, whose Lucio provokes wave after wave of laughter from the audience. Stephen Weitz, the Fool in Lear, plays a similar role here as Pompey, a man of questionable morals but infinite good cheer. He, too, deserves special note for the commendable work he does with a relatively small role.
On the Bill
Measure for Measure plays through Aug. 6 at the indoor University Theatre on the University of Colorado campus.
Tickets are $10-$54.
For tickets or information, please call 303-492-0554 or visit www.coloradoshakes.org.