Along with its program for Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure," Theatre Hopkins is distributing an essay that begins with a reference to the theme of sexual harassment and proceeds to draw a parallel with the Anita Hill case.
Written by the literary manager of the Canadian Stratford Festival, these comments may at first seem a tad forced, but director Suzanne Pratt's dark, insightful production demonstrates their veracity and in the process imbues a difficult work with compelling relevancy.
The topicality runs deeper due to the fact that Pratt has wisely updated the time period to the mid-19th century -- although seeing the men in trousers instead of tights makes it that much harder to dismiss their behavior as outmoded. More importantly, Theatre Hopkins' smooth cast brings a bristling modernity to the action.
A bit of background, since this is one of the Bard's less frequently produced texts. Angelo, the puritanical deputy to the Duke of Vienna, has been left in charge during the Duke's absence, and he decides to enforce a long-neglected law against fornication. To set an example, he imposes the death penalty on unfortunate Claudio, whose fiancee is more than a little pregnant.
Outraged -- as are most of the citizens of Vienna -- Claudio's pious sister Isabella pleads his case. But to her horror, she discovers the only way to save Claudio is to commit the very crime of which he is accused. Specifically, she must sleep with hypocritical Angelo himself.
The crucial scene in which Angelo presents this solution is the centerpiece of the text and the production. Self-righteous Angelo is portrayed by Mark E. Campion, seen last season as the lead in "The Devil's Disciple," and here transformed into the devil himself. The first shadings of the Anita Hill case surface when Cherie Weinert's intensely devout, intelligent Isabella realizes that even if she should "tell the world aloud/What man thou art," no one will believe her.
Moments later, Angelo has her pinned to the floor. At first, you fear he's going to rape her. But powerful as this scene is, its true strength comes from the realization that, in a sense, Angelo already is guilty of rape -- not just against Isabella, but against justice itself.
In addition to these informed performances, the production boosts a polished cast overall, especially newcomer Tim Woodard, who reveals a natural facility with Shakespearean verse; Ralph Piersanti as conscious-stricken Escalus, Angelo's reluctant right-hand man; Scott Knox as the concerned Duke, who disguises himself as a friar to better understand his subjects and himself; and J. R. Lyston as a Dickensian tapster.
The same essay mentioned above starts off with the words: "Once considered a 'problem play'. . ." Actually, that description of "Measure for Measure" hasn't changed; it's one reason the play isn't staged more often. Theatre Hopkins has made a bold choice in selecting this as its first Shakespearean production in almost a decade. The result not only successfully tackles many of the text's stickier problems of tone and psychology, it sheds light on some of the problems of sexual conduct, hypocrisy, justice and power that still plague society today.
'Measure for Measure'
When: 8:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:15 p.m. Sundays. Through Dec. 6.
Where: Theatre Hopkins, Merrick Barn, Johns Hopkins University.
Call: (410) 516-7159.