Excluding the pandemic years, Animal Fire Theatre has produced free, summer Shakespeare since 2010. In 2013, the company’s founders passed its reins to Kate Arvin, Scott Douglas and Douglas’s husband, Brian Hatcher. This summer, Douglas will play Duke Vincentio in Hatcher’s production of Measure for Measure, a script so relevant to our time it plays like a Jacobean episode of Law & Order.
Scholars usually categorize Measure for Measure as a comedy, but that relies on comedy’s classical definition: Its plot gets wrapped up neatly and without undue bloodshed. Yet even a casual read of the play makes it clear the Bard had loftier aims than fun and frivolity. Hatcher puts it this way: “You have, not necessarily cross-dressing, but disguises. You have these really floppy areas with some of the clown characters … Do I agree with it being a comedy? No, and for many reasons: … All three types, the comedy, the tragedy and the history really resonate inside this play.”
As evidence, Hatcher points to the script’s complex language and reasoning. “It’s very wordy and thick … with the saturation of his language, which is very historical. That’s his histories, right?” Yet the same legal and ethical arguments that determine the play’s courtroom resolution also reinforce its tragic atmosphere of doom. “This is a play that deals with a very serious issue,” Hatcher explains, “and people at the end really get hurt.” He says he and the cast assign Measure for Measure to “that fourth category that we all call the problem play.”
So what exactly is the problem at its core? These days, Vienna tops lists of the world’s most livable cities, but in the early 17th century, the English regarded it as a den of prostitution and depravity. Duke Vincentio agrees, but he suspects his own lieutenants might be part of the problem. Thus, he puts his deputy, Angelo (Aaron Gotzon), in charge before feigning a trip abroad. Angelo goes right to work, arresting anyone who violates the city’s existing sexual morality laws, and that includes couples who go through pregnancy while unmarried. Claudio (David Shoffner) had consensual, fertile sex with his fiancée, so his sister, a nun named Isabella, pleads mercy from the state. Angelo’s corrupt nature becomes clear when he offers to free Claudio, but only if Isabella sleeps with Angelo.
That brings us to the title of the play. The doctrine of proportionality demands legal punishments be commensurate to the crimes they address. Does Claudio deserve death for what he did? Would justice be served by Isabella freeing him at the cost of her own bodily autonomy and everlasting soul? Does the play’s conclusion represent true proportionality — In other words, has measure been meted for measure? Does the punishment fit the crime, or will it make matters worse?
“It’s surprised me how relatable Isabella is,” says Em Jones, this production’s Isabella. “Isabella’s story is deeply relevant today, 420 years later. She makes a series of decisions to take action based on her values and experience. She faces people in positions of power, risking consequence and fighting for change. I think of Isabella as a progressive mind, a young woman who exemplifies persistence in the face of manipulation and thoughtlessness. Measure for Measure questions human morality, devotion and integrity, and asks us what we would do when it’s time to speak up.” In the age of #MeToo, the relevance of Isabella’s predicament would be hard to deny.
“There is scarce truth enough alive to make societies secure,” observes Vincentio, a line seemingly ripped from today’s op-ed pages. “This news is old enough,” he concludes, “yet it is every day’s news.”
Photo credit: Animal Fire Theatre
Measure for Measure
7 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, July 7-30
East Capitol Campus by the Water Garden,
14th Ave. SE and Capitol Way S, Olympia