Measure for Measure is stupid.
OK. There. I've said it. Measure for Measure, William Shakespeare's odd serio-tragic comedy about sex, politics and severed heads has long been lumped among the playwright's awkward "problem plays," that common descriptive term used for Shakespeare's more difficult—i.e., impossible to produce—works for the stage.
Chief among the troubles lurking in Measure's treacherous text is the primary plot conceit, in which everything could be resolved with one man standing up and revealing his true identity instead of plotting unnecessarily tenuous alternatives. And then there's the unfathomable ending in which . . . well, few of Shakespeare's stories have conclusions that are more absurd, or more unsettling, than the one that concludes Measure for Measure.
Like I said, it's stupid.
If it seems that I am building toward a massive critical rebuke of Oregon Shakespeare Festival's recently opened production of Measure (playing now through November at the Angus Bowmer Theatre in Ashland), nothing could be further from the truth. As directed by Bill Rauch, OSF's increasingly bold artistic director, Measure for Measure's considerable faults are met head-on, pounding them so skillfully from all directions that, in the end, the play—and I say this in hushed reverence—now actually works.
Moreover, it's easily one of the best adaptations of one of Shakespeare's problem plays since, well, 2009, when the festival staged All's Well That Ends Well—and somehow figured out how to make it actually end well. What's become clear over the 76 years that the OSF has been in operation—and this is surely part of the reason that thousands of North Bay residents make the annual six-hour trek over the Siskiyou Pass—is that OSF loves Shakespeare's underdogs.
Though the company does a fine enough job with its Hamlets and Midsummer Night's Dreams and all those Romeo and Juliets, it is what they do with the oddballs—King John, Titus Andronicus, Coriolanus, Cymbeline—that makes them special. One of the only festivals in the world committed to staging every single one of the Bard's plays, the company clearly heaps a bit of extra artistic attention on the problem plays, committed, it would seem, to solving those "problems" once and for all.
In Rauch's Measure, the story has been moved from Vienna to East L.A., "narrated," in a way, by a trio of female mariachis who first appear as Latina cleaning women (and then reappear at various times to sing transitional Spanish tunes with translations projected onto the wall high above their heads). Duke Vincentio (Anthony Heald), a good-hearted leader but a tad eccentric, intends to learn about his countrymen by disguising himself as one of them, but the first thing he learns is that Angelo (Rene Millin), the highly moral judge he's put in charge of the city, did not take long to become a tyrannical villain.
Citing strict laws against fornication, Angelo has sentenced young Claudio (Frankie Alvarez) to death for knocking up Juliet (Alejandra Escalante). When Claudio's sister, the calmly powerful novice nun Isabela (Stephanie Beatriz), comes to Angelo to plead for her brother's life, the judge is both affronted and conflicted. He wants her, badly, and offers her a deal: he will spare Claudio if she consents to sleep with him.
Vincentio, who has hidden his identity under a friar's cloak, learns of Claudio's impending execution and his offer to Isabela, and decides to set a trap for the hypocritical judge. The plot, to say the least, stretches probability, employing both bed-swapping and head-swapping. What makes it work is Beatriz's hypnotic commitment to her role, turning Isabela into a powerhouse of self-determination and steely resolve. As Beatriz plays it, Isabela's decision to choose her own chastity over her brother's life finally makes sense. Rauch's decision to emphasize the play's exploration of justice and the legal system also pays huge dividends; with much of the play set in the local jail, extraordinary detail is given to how the various prisoners and death-row inmates are treated. To say that it is at times breathtaking is not an exaggeration.
And what they do with that ending . . . wow! Without adding or changing a word, Rauch and Beatriz turn the entire play upside down in its final five seconds.
Measure for Measure is just one of four plays opening the festival, with new plays opening every several weeks, working toward a total of 12 shows playing throughout the season. Julia Cho's modern fable about love and language, The Language Archive, directed by Laurie Woolery, is a gentle little gem of a play, running through June 17 in the intimate New Theatre. Dusted with a pinch of magical realism, the play focuses on a linguist named George (Rex Young), who speaks eloquently about the world's many lost languages but cannot tell his wife, the lonely baker Mary (Kate Mulligan), that he loves her. It's lovely but slight, evaporating like the smell of baking bread not long after it's over.
To Kill a Mockingbird, adapted from Harper Lee's novel by Christopher Sergel, is brilliantly acted, with Mark Murphey giving an impressive turn as the iconic Atticus Finch. As directed by Broadway's Marion McClinton, it conjures powerful images of the tiny, racially divided town of Maycomb, Ala., as seen through the eyes of the young Scout (Kaya Van Dyke). The power of the story is thwarted, though, by Sergel's pedestrian, overly preachy script, which pushes too hard to makes points the characters actions have already made.
Moliere's whimsical farce The Imaginary Invalid, directed by Tracy Young with a spirited nonliteral translation by Young and Oded Gross, works much of the same magic as Rauch's Measure for Measure. The play, about a rich man who thinks he's dying and considered one of the great French satirist's lesser efforts, has wacky, new life breathed into it with a colorful, Austin Powers-ish setting; it's a laugh-out-loud riot that then sucker-punches us with a truly moving, life-affirming finish. It could make any viewer dance out of the theater—and made me want to stay put and watch the thing all over again.
For full Oregon Shakespeare Festival schedule, see www.osfashland.org.