By ALAN SMASON
It’s been more than 400 years since the bulk of the Bard of Stratford-on Avon’s works were written in what is referred by today’s scholars as early modern English. Some 200 years before Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote in a prose described as Middle English, peppered with French idioms. The differences between what might be called a “common” language are startling and much changed in just two centuries.
It goes without saying the language of Shakespeare’s time is starkly different from the modern English we speak and write today. Yet, the vaunted poetry in the iambic pentameter of the Bard’s works might easily be lost were it to be updated to the mundane English of today.
With great care and vigilance, Aditi Kapil has endeavored to do just that. A writer of Bulgarian and Indian descent who was raised in Sweden before moving to the U.S., Kapil has painstakingly adapted the original language of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and transformed it into a more accessible prose while maintaining the integrity of its poetry.
She took part in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play On Shakespeare, an ambitious series of commissions given to 36 playwrights – more than half women and more than half people of color – to “celebrate the enduring impact” of Shakespeare’s works by translating them into more modern English.
This world premiere production of Measure for Measure, put on jointly by The NOLA Project and the New Orleans Museum of Art, is set in old Vienna with the museum’s Great Hall serving as the magnificent venue for a similarly magnificent production.
We have seen much to admire in this partnership between this upstart theatre company of young men and women (now enjoying its 15th season) and the well-endowed museum with its nicely appointed facilities. While springtime offerings are typically held in the recently-expanded Sidney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, the fall and winter performances have been held in the Great Hall and the performers have never looked and sounded better.
Gone are the days before baffling was installed when the voices of the actors would disappear into the vaulted ceiling. Using the grand marble staircase, the spaces leading into the chamber and the galleries above to enhance effects below, the production staff is to be congratulated for making the theatrical experience enchanting and enjoyable in a non-traditional space.
With Michael Joel Bartelle cast in the dual roles of Duke Vincentio and his disguised alter-ego of Friar Lodowick, Measure for Measure has a magnificent and talented leading man. His flighty take on the duke as he dashes down the stairs early in Act One has a youthful energy belying his maturity as an actor.
The conceit of a friar’s robe conceals the duke from the other citizens of Vienna and especially from the man to whom he cedes his power, Angelo (James Yeargain). This is the duke’s test of Angelo’s worthiness to rule and his ability to be ethical in the process of enforcing the law. He enjoins him to “feel free to enforce or qualify the law as you see fit.” Yeargain is a worthy actor playing the villain, who is corrupted by his assumed power and conceals his ulterior motives. In the duke’s absence, he is assisted in the execution of his duties by Escalus (Graham Burk), an opportunist who sees to it that Angelo’s bloodthirsty reign will not be challenged.
Claudio, played by Khiry Armstead, finds himself in legal trouble for having impregnated his faithful girlfriend Juliet (Elizabeth McCoy) and he is torn away from her by Angelo’s henchmen and thrown into prison awaiting execution. Armstead portrays a man who is wronged to great effect and it isn’t very long that word reaches the convent to where his novitiate sister Isabella (the consummately skilled Ashley Santos) is preparing to take her final vows and live out her life as a nun.
Isabella, in her zeal to save her brother, makes a fatal error in judgment and appealing to Angelo’s sense of fair play and justice asks him to release the prisoner and pardon him. Committed to going ahead with the execution, however, Angelo offers her a devilish bargain: save her brother by having relations with him or do nothing and consign him to certain death. Tempting a virginal, would-be bride of the Church is bad enough, but unknown to Isabella, Angelo instructs Escalus to speed up plans for the execution regardless of her decision.
Santos continues to prove herself to be one of the area’s best leading actresses. As a woman pledged to the service of the Church and unknown to man, she is at first hesitant to attempt to save her brother. When she musters the courage to approach Angelo and advocate on his behalf, she is genuinely shocked by his salacious proposition. “More than my brother is my chastity,” she retorts.
The scenes with Yeargain and Santos are especially charged as they play out this cat and mouse game. Yeargain’s hubris as the licentious Angelo is as thick as Santos’ naivete and innocence.
All of this is soon revealed to the the duke in disguise as Friar Lodowick. He is able to witness the ruthless and hypocritical nature of Angelo’s true self, but not wanting to reveal himself, he enlists the services of the Provost (Emma Schillage) and also asks Isabella to trust in him as a man of God.
Meanwhile, Lucio (Reid Williams), a loud-mouthed braggart who is a supposed friend to Claudio, makes his appearance on the scene. He has already proven himself to be an unworthy ally and unfaithful to Claudio when he happens on the friar. In an attempt to impress the friar, Lucio goes to great lengths to inform him how close he and the absent duke were before his journey away from Vienna. It follows thereafter that he should tell the friar of the duke’s various transgressions, who cautions him about spinning such wild fabrications. Lucio heeds not the friar’s warnings and ramps up his charges against the duke. Williams plays the role masterfully.
Sprinkled throughout the work are the comedic interactions between Pompey (Alex Martinez Wallace) and Elbow (Kali Russell), a constable. Pompey works as a pimp for Mistress Overdone (Tenaj Jackson) a local brothel owner and Elbow is constantly looking to find a way to arrest him. Wallace employs a thick Brooklyn accent in his role, while Russell uses a charming cockney affect. Eventually carted off to prison, Pompey makes the most of it and is afforded an apprenticeship to the hangman Abhorson (another role played by Graham Burk).
With Claudio’s execution sped up under orders from Angelo and a literal head demanded to prove the deed, the friar suggests another prisoner be executed in his place. The provost suggests Bernadine (Kali Russell again) as a worthy candidate who has already been sentenced to death. But Bernadine will have none of the suggestion. Not today, he advises.
The friar also learns of the despair of Mariana (Megan Whittle), a woman who was once promised to Angelo, but lost both her brother and her dowry in a wreck at sea. Hearing of the loss of the dowry, the treacherous Angelo broke off the engagement several years ago. The friar hatches a scheme to relieve Mariana of her plight as well as to placate Angelo into believing Claudio has been dispatched.
Directed by Mark Routhier, this production resonates with superb performances and scores very high marks. Mike Harkins provides the proper amount of sound effects and music selections throughout the three-hour long performance that enhance the actors’ movements and dialogue.
Is this a replacement for the Bard’s traditional words? Perhaps not. But this translation from English to English is lovely and faithful to the original work, which will always stand the test of time. Making Shakespeare’s words more accessible and meaningful for a modern audience cannot be a bad thing as long as the spirit of his meaning is not lost in its translation.
Kapil has done a superb job in giving The NOLA Project actors a work which they can claim as both informative of the Bard and avant-garde. This is, after all, what they have done for the past 14 seasons: to make theatre important and vibrant. No, this is not your grandfather’s grandfather’s Shakespeare, but it is very good Shakespeare that serves him well in this century.
Translated in modern verse by Aditi Kapil, William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure continues in the Grand Hall of the New Orleans Museum of Art with performances on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 7:30 p.m. now through Sun. Sept. 29. In addition, there is a Wednesday evening performance on Sept. 25. Ticket prices range from $15-$33 and season subscriptions and tickets are available here or by dialing 504-302-9117.