‘Measure for Measure: In Motion’ inspires conversation and laughter

August 8, 2019 10:36
‘Measure for Measure: In Motion’ inspires conversation and laughter

POLITICS, SEXUAL relationships and power struggles between genders: All these issues are explored.. (photo credit: YITZ WOOLF)

Power and politics, death and deception, sexism and sexual exploitation all take place in the span of two hours just before sunset at Jerusalem’s Bloomfield Park. Playful characters in flashy costumes, both modern and traditional, take the stage as Theater in the Rough brings William Shakespeare to a current-day audience with Measure for Measure: In Motion.

Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s more controversial comedies. It is set in Vienna, where young nun Isabella’s brother Claudio is being held in prison awaiting execution. His crime? Fornication. Her plan? To bargain with government leader Angelo to spare his life. Angelo, however, won’t show mercy unless Isabella sacrifices her precious virginity to him.

A series of fights and plot twists ensues, along with bumbling prostitutes and pimps acting as the fools who help drive the plot. The character who proves to be the biggest traitor of them all is Duke Vincentio, portrayed by Avital Sykora, who acts as the puppet master of these people. The play explores many issues within the macrocosm of politics, the microcosm of sexual relationships, and the overarching themes of power struggles between genders in and out of the legal system.

The play is vibrant, energetic and collaborative – all elements that emulate exactly how the majority of Shakespeare’s works were performed at the time of their origin. The only differences here are that the play is set in a park, where the cast switches locations based on each scene, and that the cast is not all male. In fact, this particular production moves with the times and features many women playing men, such as Sykora portraying the duplicitous duke who disguises him/herself as a friar as a way to trick the other characters.

While not all of the actors are classically trained in Shakespeare and come from different walks of theater life, the play is still raw, ridiculous and real. While Hamlet told his players, “Speak the speech as I pronounced to you trippingly on the tongue,” most of these actors approached their speech with ease and comfort. It seemed as though they knew exactly what they were saying at each moment.

Sykora demonstrated a thorough knowledge of the text, and subtext. Her portrayal of Duke Vincentio was truthful and intellectually funny. Her understanding of the subtext of each line was present in her thought process and motivation behind every movement and vocal inflection. She entered the stage draped in a black, orange and gold-tasseled robe with poise and conviction.
The duke is a complex character. He feigns the disguise of a friar in order to help Isabella and gather more information, but ultimately betrays several characters, including her.

“We’ve been examining the duke for a while because he’s such a strange character,” Sykora said. “He just flips in the middle, going from helping Isabella to messing with every character.”

Natan Skop’s portrayal of Angelo, however, appeared to be a little unclear in his thought processes and reactions to what his fellow actors were saying. When Angelo delivers his long soliloquy about the morality of detaining Claudio, it is a powerful, human struggle we are witnessing. Angelo, after all, is sexually threatening a young nun, who makes it her life’s mission to be chaste, with her brother’s death threatened if she does not perform. Still, Angelo, like every other human being, is complicated and conflicted. While many of these elements were present in Skop’s overall performance, the soliloquy itself was not captivating.

ANOTHER STANDOUT was Schmuel Goldstein, who portrayed Prince Escalus and Barnadine. He embodied the actor’s quartet of voice, body, emotion and imagination in both roles, which are very much contrasted. Escalus is subservient to the duke, and is dutiful and kind. Meanwhile, Barnadine is a prisoner with Claudio in the hanging cell. He is a bumbling fool who has managed to escape hanging for the long time he has been in prison.

Goldstein transforms from a polite, put-together person to a hysterical impulsive drunk. His intricate performance in the gallows scene was unreal. He went from stumbling to cackling on the ground and making silly clown-like faces at the audience, but all in pursuit of what his character wanted in the scene. This was motivated, specific acting.

“Usually I play characters that have some sort of moral failure,” Goldstein said. “Escalus is a very caring person who is used to being in charge. Sometimes you can relate to his sort of struggle as a father when you want your kids to do something and they don’t always do it.”

Goldstein said his creative process involves a lot of impulse, studying the text and just having fun on stage. His inspiration for Barnadine stemmed from his time spent working as a medical clown, which shows in his intuitive performance.
Of course, no creative process is simple, especially with something as complex as a Shakespeare play.

Beth Steinberg, artistic director and one of the founding members of Theater in the Rough, emphasized the importance of not only taking time to develop characters, but also to delve into the text. She and her cast enter into deep discussions about the play and the different issues the play presents.

“During the early part of the rehearsal process we really read the play and talk about the different characters,” Steinberg said.
A crucial aspect of a two-month rehearsal process, according to Steinberg, is the discussion on text because the actors are dealing with a heightened language full of puns, various figures of speech and allusions.

“We take the time to really understand the text because the text should feel like speech, like a real conversation,” she said. “That’s a big part of doing Shakespearean work, and at the end of the day it’s just language.”

Steinberg claims that understanding Shakespearean text is not as much of a challenge as playing it so it will be relatable and understandable to a modern audience. The beauty of Shakespeare’s plays is that they have stood the test of time thematically, which allows audiences to recognize the universality of his plots. According to Steinberg, Shakespeare is modern in so many ways, which is why people find it so fascinating.

Measure for Measure, like every other Shakespeare play, presents issues that are universal. Women in 1605 dealt with sexual oppression, exploitation and power struggles even more than they do today. Steinberg mentions how the play’s themes apply to everything today from the global #MeToo Movement to the recent alleged sexual assault by Israelis in Cyprus last month.
“We have to ask ourselves: What does that say to us about power, gender, gender power and sexual power and the way we can influence each other?” Steinberg said.

A chilling aspect of the play is the scene where Isabella (portrayed by Abigail Ellis) threatens Angelo with exposure for his “deal.” He responds, “And who would believe you?” Steinberg believes any woman in the audience will be able to relate in some way to that haunting line.

Steinberg’s vision for the production was to bring together an ensemble that would work off of each other in an organic way.
“My favorite part is getting the ensemble together,” she said. “I often feel like I’m a camp counselor in the best way. Comedies are messy; there are different elements and different players. There’s this point where I need to get people to this moment where they’ll peak and really have fun.”

Steinberg loves the unification of the cast as well as outdoor theater, especially in Jerusalem. Theater in the Rough, she said, is about the theater being a space that the players are pleased to use, complete with outdoor abbeys, church bells ringing in the distance and the noise of a Jerusalem summer afternoon.

“In many ways, what I think the play shows us is the humanity of each person, and that’s where Shakespeare’s always brilliant,” Steinberg said.

Measure for Measure: In Motion opens Wednesday, August 14, at 7:30 p.m. and runs through August 27. Admission is free.

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