U of C drama department tackles Shakespearean ‘problem play’

Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure hasn’t been produced by the University of Calgary for decades so it’s about time that someone took it on. Dawn McCaugherty who has wanted to do the play for years now has the chance to direct it with a full cast and crew of University of Calgary students.

The story kicks off with a Duchess who sees that her lax ways have let her demesne (manor land occupied by tenants) fall into rampant debauchery and thus appoints her upstanding right-hand man Angelo to straighten out the mess. However when a young nun Isabella comes to Angelo to plead on behalf of her brother (he’s due to be executed for having sex out of wedlock) Angelo asks Isabella to give up her virginity to him in exchange for her brother’s life.

McCaugherty says the play’s themes remain perhaps all too relevant today: power the abuse of authority and public figures acting in self-interest for example. “It’s a play that really speaks to women because I think the situation that Isabella is in… [is] an ongoing theme forever in women’s lives” she adds.

Despite all the slime and subterfuge though Measure for Measure is a very funny play with characters like a bumbling constable a consummate fop and the bawd Mistress Overdone (reimagined as a drag queen for this production).

Partially because the play’s themes stand the test of time McCaugherty and the set and costume designer Jennifer Lee Arsenault decided to give this production a futuristic aesthetic — think Blade Runner and Sin City .

“The starting point was a neo-noir look” says Lee Arsenault. “We agreed to have it an abstract place that could offer a whole bunch of possibilities so it’s a sculptural place with a lot of levels and lines and we’re playing with what’s seen and what’s hidden.” Also creeping around the set are a posse of townsfolk (or “townies” as McCaugherty and Lee Arsenault call them) who represent the debauched underbelly of society and provide visible proof of how the Duchess’s weak rule has played out in the streets.

Setting it in an indeterminate future means that Lee Arsenault had to make up some rules. “How can we tell who’s a Duchess who’s a Duke compared to a gentleman just by their clothes in a world that doesn’t even exist?” she asks. The costume design partially inspired by some of the wackier styles in last year’s Vogue catalogue is bold and shining against the duller greys of the set itself.

Besides the setting another important shift from the original is exchanging the role of Duke for a Duchess. “We don’t live 400 years ago and the structure of our social networking and our social relationships have really changed and gender doesn’t necessarily mean what gender meant even 100 years ago” says McCaugherty.

She notes that the female characters in the play are essentially powerless with the power residing in male hands so swapping out the Duke for a Duchess subverts that pattern. “I wanted it to not fall so clearly along those male/female gender lines” she says.

The play isn’t performed all that frequently perhaps because it’s often categorized as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” While technically a comedy Measure for Measure deals with dark sometimes upsetting themes. “It raises ethical and moral questions questions of character and spirituality that it doesn’t really answer” says McCaugherty. “It just kind of puts them out there and leaves them for the reader or the viewer to think about so for the people who like that kind of theatre it works really well.”