“Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure;
Like doth quit like, and MEASURE still for MEASURE.”
– Capitalized emphasis indicated by William Shakespeare
Tragedy and comedy are what the all-volunteer Shore Shakespeare company was about until personal tragedy – and a worldwide pandemic – shut it down for a year in 2020. The pandemic, of course, shut down almost every company staging live performances, from super-selling Broadway shows such as Hamilton to touring troupes like Boston-based Brown Box Theatre that brought Shakespeare in the park to towns all over the Delmarva Peninsula. After 11 years, Brown Box, established in 2010, folded. Shore Shakespeare, established in 2013, overcame both COVID and, more devastating to its survival, the death of its co-founder Christian Rogers.
Last summer, 2021, Shore Shakespeare rose from its twin setbacks to stage as a tribute to Rogers “A Little Touch of Shakespeare: On the Theme of Love,” It featured scenes from tragedies – Othello, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and The Merchant of Venice; as well as comedies – Much Ado About Nothing, Taming of the Shrew, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Beginning Labor Day weekend, Shore Shakespeare returns after three years with its first full production of a Bard play – Measure for Measure, starting at Adkins Arboretum near Ridgely, then playing the following two weekends at Oxford Community Center, and ending at Chestertown’s Wilmer Park.
Among the leading players is Avra Sullivan, cast in two roles not usually paired in Shakespeare’s so-called “problem play.” Sullivan gives credit to her director, Greg Minahan. (“It’s regarded as a problem play because it’s a problem for the director,” Minahan says, “whether to play it more as comedy or tragedy.”) “It was Greg’s idea,” Sullivan says of Minahan, who also directs himself in the lead as the Duke of Vienna and a disguised friar spying on the deputy standing in for him. Sullivan plays Mariana, betrothed (but for her lack of a dowry) to Angelo, the duke’s pompous deputy played by Will Robinson, as well as Escalus, Angelo’s attaché. “It works,” Sullivan says of her dual roles, adding that “to make them different adds to the challenge.” Playing Lady Macbeth, she says, was her favorite role with Shore Shakespeare. “It was kind of on my bucket list.”
An early Measure for Measure scene set in a brothel depicts the moral morass Vienna has fallen into. Angelo, determined to eradicate this wickedness, intends to make an example of Claudio, who has gotten his fiancée pregnant before their wedding date. The penalty Angelo imposes is beheading. “In his mind, he didn’t do anything wrong,” says Paul Briggs, who plays opposite Avalon Robuck as Juliet, Claudio’s intended. In much of the play, she clutches a baby doll in the “role” of their bastard child. Avalon’s mother, Heather, plays Claudio’s novitiate sister Isabella, who pleads with Angelo to spare her brother. The duke’s appointee offers to let Claudio live only if lovely Isabella surrenders her virginity to him. Angelo is spurned at first, but later a tryst is arranged with Mariana conspiringly disguised as Isabella. (Shakespeare characters, famously, are easily fooled, even by intimate partners.)
Meanwhile, the duke, undercover as a friar, sees what overreaching moral authority Angelo is up to. “I see him principally as a hypocrite,” says Robinson of the jerk he plays. “He’s legalistically minded but also power hungry. He thinks the duke has given him free rein.”
Heather Robuck interprets Isabella as a novitiate virgin with a guarded worldview. “She very much wants a strictly structured life so as not to be tempted. She’s smart and virtuous, but there’s a little sass in there when in defense of her brother.”
Minahan sees the play and the evolving judgment of his character as a contest between “mercy and justice. But he finds that there is a third choice – consequence for choices – which does not include beheading for fornication.
Hence, the title Measure for Measure and its explication in the final scene rehearsed on a lawn in Denton and a set that will move from site to site in September on the mid-Shore. By then, the cast will be fully costumed and rehearsed – no more asking for lines and just delivering them.
Steve Parks is a retired New York arts writer and editor now living in Easton.
Shore Shakespeare presents Measure for Measure
2 p.m. Sept. 3 and 4, Adkins Arboretum, 12610 Eveland Rd., Ridgely (free with $5-$15 arboretum admission)
6 p.m. Sept. 10, 3 p.m. Sept. 11, Oxford Community Center, 200 Oxford Rd. (free)
6 p.m. Sept. 17, 3 p.m. Sept. 18, Wilmer Park, 118 N. Cross St., Chestertown (free)
All performances are outdoors; bring lawn chairs or blankets; shoreshakespeare.org