Think of it as the #TheeToo movement.
The Antaeus Theatre Company’s current production of “Measure for Measure” follows an Ensemble Theatre Company production of Shakespeare’s classic in Santa Barbara this fall and a New American Theatre staging in Hollywood last season, not to mention recent productions at the Barbican in London and the Public in New York.
The reason for its ubiquity is clear: The plot contains some conspicuous parallels to the present day. Most obviously, it centers on a woman who is sexually blackmailed by a powerful man. But to codirectors Armin Shimerman and Elizabeth Swain, this play’s resonance runs far deeper than its echoes of Harvey Weinstein.
They argue that “Measure for Measure” depicts how rigid religious beliefs can blind us to human suffering, and it offers a clear warning of what can go wrong when a ruler with impulse-control issues obtains autocratic power.
“Shakespeare’s text is amazingly prescient,” said Carolyn Ratteray, who is playing the central role of Isabella, recipient of the aforementioned indecent proposal. “The play is a meditation on what happens when power corrupts.”
First performed in 1604, “Measure for Measure” is a play about the intersection of public and private morality. Concerned that the residents of his city have lost their ethical compass (for one thing, the brothel business is booming), the Duke of Vienna goes undercover to investigate, leaving his deputy Angelo in charge.
After some hesitation, Angelo proceeds to enforce long-forgotten laws rigorously. This effort leads to the arrest of a local man named Claudio, who has impregnated his fiancée. When Claudio’s sister Isabella, who is about to become a nun, comes to Angelo to plead on her brother’s behalf, he agrees to a deal: Claudio, who is facing the death penalty, can go free if she will have sex with him.
Contemporary analogies are easy to make. But the Antaeus team is decidedly not following the template of the Public Theater’s much-discussed 2017 production of “Julius Caesar” in New York’s Central Park, where the title character bore an uncanny resemblance to Donald Trump. “There are contemporary parallels,” Shimerman said, “but we expect the audience to be smart enough, and well-read enough, to make the connection for themselves.”
Swain said they couldn’t direct the play to fit today’s headlines. “That would be fatal,” she said. “But so many resonances have come up for me, as a woman, while working on this play.”
For both directors and their lead actor, this production is informed less by specific events or personalities than by our shifting attitudes and assumptions regarding sexual coercion.
“Years ago, people would say, ‘Isabella is so cold not to sleep with Angelo so she could free her brother,’” Ratteray said. “That reaction was the norm. Today, as a society, we’re at least a little more attuned to survivors’ rights. Reading this play anew, I realized Isabella suffers a tremendous trauma.”
The character’s agony is compounded by Angelo’s assertion that no one would believe her if she goes public, especially given his high rank. “It’s so easy to not take people’s experiences seriously, based upon who is in a position of power,” Ratteray said.
In some productions, Swain said, Isabella is dumbfounded by Angelo’s demand. In contrast, Swain views Isabella’s initial hesitation as “an example of how women make excuses for men.”
The initial thought that Angelo couldn’t mean what he said is followed by the realization that maybe he does. Finally, reality sinks in: “Oh ... he does!” Swain said with an expletive.
Having a male and a female point of view has been useful, she said. Shimerman agreed, adding that they usually work out their disagreements by simply trying different ideas and seeing what works.
“Sometimes she convinces me, sometimes I convince her,” he said. “Debates and differences of opinion are a very good thing in the theater.”
That can be especially true with Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” the label frequently applied to “Measure for Measure.” It contains elements of comedy and tragedy, which can make tone tricky. “The key is letting the humor be, and letting the darkness be,” Swain said. “The comic scenes reflect on the serious ones.”
Most in the cast of 10 play two or three roles. Costumes subtly suggest the characters’ social standing, but the era they inhabit is purposefully vague — “both 1604 and 2020,” Shimerman said.
The directors have pared down the text; each of the two acts should clock in at about an hour and 10 minutes. Most important, “We’ve put a lot of work into making sure the language is clear,” Swain said. “We made sure the actors weren’t uttering a syllable they didn’t understand.”
Through that clarity of language, Ratteray said, “We’re allowing the play to speak for itself. The play is very resonant, but it doesn’t need to be underlined.”
“Measure for Measure” is an unsettling play, Shimerman said. “But we are living in unsettling times.”
When: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, 8 p.m. Mondays, through April 6
Info: (818) 506-1983 or www.antaeus.org
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