Bird-on-a-Cliff Theatre Company’s Measure for Measure, which opens July 27 on a stage set up on the greensward at the Comeau Property in Woodstock, is classified as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”: a characterization that actor David Aston-Reese said could certainly be applied to the Duke, who is the character he plays; the play has not only a “bed trick” but also a “head trick.” Here’s how Aston-Reese describes Measure for Measure, which he said is not performed nearly enough; he himself saw his first production earlier this year at Vassar:
“It takes place in Vienna. There are whorehouses everywhere, and the place is going to pot. The Duke decides to clamp down and enforce the laws; but because he is responsible for letting it go to pot, he can’t do it himself, and gives power to the young Turk, Angelo. Because the Duke wants to keep an eye on things, he also goes to a friend who’s a friar and gets a habit so he can prowl around in disguise. (It was written in 1604, at the beginning of the reign of King James, who used to go around in a friar’s gown.) Angelo gets power-hungry and starts arresting people. He arrests Claudio for getting a woman pregnant out of wedlock and sentences him to death. Claudio has a sister, Isabella, who’s a nun and pleads for Claudio’s case. Angelo falls for the nun, but she refuses his advances. She goes to the prison and tells her brother, ‘I spoke to Angelo and he wants me to give up my virginity for your life.’ At first he protests, then says maybe it’s not such a bad thing, since it would save his life.
“Angelo is supposed to marry Marianna, but she lost all her money and he dumped her. The Duke, who’s still disguised as a friar, tells Isabella he’ll send Marianna in her place to Angelo; the room will be dark and he won’t know the difference. The Duke goes to the prison to pardon Claudio, when a message arrives to kill him instantly. The Duke and the jailkeeper come up with a scheme to kill somebody else and send that head to Angelo. They choose an inmate who refuses to be executed. So they come up with another head. It’s classified as a comedy, because what happens in the end is that everyone gets married and no one gets killed.”
The problem with the Duke, Aston-Reese said, is “Why does he stay in disguise so long? He likes to manipulate.” Even after learning from Isabella about Angelo’s sleazy intentions, he doesn’t reveal his identity – a problem that shows that “He wants to pop it to Angelo, take him through the gauntlet and slam him.” The Duke’s failure to reveal his true identity “really works dramatically,” said Aston-Reese.
The Woodstock Shakespeare production features a distinguished local cast. The costumes are reminiscent of the Parisian demimonde of the late 19th century, as it was portrayed by Toulouse-Lautrec. Seating is on the lawn, so bring a blanket, a folding chair and a picnic.
Measure for Measure in the Woodstock Shakespeare Festival runs from July 27 through September 2 on Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 5 p.m. Admission is free, with a $5 suggested donation. Call (845) 247-4007 for more information.