William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure: In fair Vienna do we lay our scene, where, due to the negligence of the city’s Duke (played by College junior Luke Taylor), debauchery and venereal disease have run rampant for the past 20 years. The Duke decides the time has come to make his city right again, and so he puts his deputy Angelo (College sophomore Peter Elgee) in charge while the Duke disguises himself as a friar and tries to solve Vienna’s problems from the ground up — or is he just messing around? Angelo implements the strict laws that have fallen by the wayside during the Duke’s reign: Brothels are pulled down, and anyone caught having sex out of wedlock will be put to death. One such offender is Claudio (College junior Mike Sederquist), and it falls to his sister Isabella (College junior Sophie Zucker) to plead with Angelo for Claudio’s life. Despite the fact that Isabella was about to take her vows to become a nun at the beginning of the play, first Angelo and later the Duke himself make sexual advances toward her without taking into account anything she says. Basically, it’s complicated.
The Oberlin Student Theater Association sets out to tackle this thorny plot in its production running Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in Wilder Main. Director and College sophomore Anna Gelman has wanted to stage a production of Shakespeare’s convoluted comedy for years. “When I was 17, I studied in Russia for three months, and my dad was there with me for the first few weeks, and the last thing that my dad and I did together was … go see a production of Measure for Measure,” Gelman said. “So besides the synopsis that my father gave me, I could have been extremely lost, but instead I had a ridiculously powerful emotional reaction to it. I’ve kind of been obsessed with it … and planning my own personal production since I was 17.”
Gelman’s production transplants the story from Vienna to a mishmashed America that culturally spans from the ’50s to the ’70s. “The clothing … goes through a couple of decades, actually, stylistically, which each [is a] response to where each character fits within a timeline of American history and social constructs,” said College sophomore Sonya Berg, Measure for Measure’s costume designer. Music also helps set the tone of the play — Gelman described the soundtrack as a Beach Boys Pandora station. However, there is one notable exception to the oldies: Robin Thicke’s controversial “Blurred Lines” chillingly plays at the close of the first act.
Judging from Measure’s dress rehearsals, the issues addressed in the play remain poignant 400 years after it was originally written. The term “rape culture” may not have been coined until relatively recently, but the idea behind it is central to Measure for Measure.
Taylor, who plays the Duke, expounded on some of the play’s central problems. “Something that Anna’s really stressed that I’ve really enjoyed a lot is the nature of power, and [how] those with power … use it,” he said. “I think the Duke on the surface thinks he’s benevolent, but really he’s not, and he’s never been told ‘no’ before in his whole life. These women … have power, but it’s as a sexual object. And then, as soon as the Duke wants to take that away from [Isabella], there’s no question [that he can].”
Although Measure for Measure could be classified as a comedy — there are marriages at the end — the play’s final moments, when Isabella finally has her voice and agency totally stripped from her, are when the play is at its most problematic and disturbing. “I think the only thing I want to say about it is: I made a strong decision about the end of this play,” Gelman said. “I think [Isabella] not saying anything, slash not being allowed to say anything, says it all. That being said, the end of our show’s the scariest thing I’ve ever come up with in my life. … Every single time we’ve rehearsed it, we’ve been like, ‘Are we safe? Is everyone safe? Is Sophie safe?’ It’s pretty intense,” Gelman said.
Considering the dedication of the cast and crew, the production promises to be as intense as the rehearsals. Tickets are available for $3 at Wilder Desk in advance and $5 at the door.