insightful in-depth reviews

7, Oct 2009

Measure for Measure inside a morgue

by Steve Cohen
The Cultural Critic

Isabella, adapted from Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure. Pig Iron Theatre Company, 2007


Isabella by the Pig Iron Theatre is unique. It is a superior matchup of imagination and execution. And it’s surprisingly faithful to Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure. But, you may ask, how can I speak about faithfulness when the play is set in a modern morgue?

The words remain Shakespeare’s and the essential themes are intact. Most of the text has been cut because this play lasts only 70 minutes, but hardly any new words have been added. Almost every syllable spoken is by the Bard. Only the place and context have been changed.

Shakespeare’s play was set in Vienna, but not really. Will made no effort to evoke Middle Europe. There’s nothing Austrian about his script and no harm is done by imagining the action in 21st-century America. As for the context, Pig Iron has remarkably captured the essence of the original and emphasized its themes.

Measure For Measure is labeled a comedy but very dark, about death and sexual obsession. Pig Iron’s creative directors picked up on this as they set their version in a morgue.

One of Shakespeare’s speeches starts: “Ay, but to die, and go we know not where; To lie in cold obstruction and to rot.” That soliloquy is preoccupied with what happens physically to corpses. Shakespeare makes many other references in the play to flesh, sex and death. This was one of Shakespeare’s last plays. He wasn’t writing about adolescent love any more, he was thinking about the end of life.

So the artistic directors Dan Rothenberg, Quinn Bauriedel and Dito von Reigensberg created a mortician as their central character. Just as Angelo in Measure For Measure looks at Isabella, a chaste young nun, and feels sexual desire for her, so does the mortician find himself lusting after a body that’s in his care. The Duke, Angelo’s superior in the original, also is fixated on Isabella’s body and wants to marry her. So the mortician is a counterpart of both the Duke and Angelo as he plays out his fantasies of sexual desire.

One of the reasons that Measure for Measure fascinates me is the religious rigidity, combined with hypocrisy, of the political leaders. Isabella’s brother, you will recall, is sentenced to death for having sex with his fiancee. The Duke denounced prostitution and premarital sex but lacked the courage to enforce his own laws against them. He delegated his power to a subordinate, Angelo, who demanded that Isabella have sex with him in exchange for her brother’s life.

He preaches against sexuality, then is caught in a sexually predatory act himself. This misuse of government, law and power is quite contemporary. In Isabella the misuse of power is transferred to the authority who handles our bodies and the bodies of our loved ones, and this has an impact that may be even stronger than Shakespeare’s.

We are in a brightly-lit, modern morgue. Cadavers are on gurneys. The mortician, in blue scrubs, removes the cover from one corpse, and it is an attractive young woman. He starts his professional examination and note-taking but soon is distracted, peels off his rubber gloves and begins to run his hands over her body. Recoiling from his own action, he soon thinks of the parallel to Measure For Measure and begins to prop up the bodies and manipulate them so they can speak Shakespeare’s lines. As if he were a puppeteer, he starts to move their mouths and limbs.

To the credit of Pig Iron’s production, this emerges so naturally that audiences accept the conceit. Perhaps the bodies move and talk only in the mortician’s imagination — we never find out — but we easily suspend disbelief.

One of the strengths of the production is the actors’ method of talking that suggests rigor mortis yet preserves the thrust of Shakespeare. Another is the facial expression and body language of the players. They are individually differentiated. Some of the men have vacant or zombie-like gazes. Juliet maintains a sweet, pleasant visage, and Isabella’s look is the most unusual of all. It definitely is not vacant and it seems as if she is outraged, appropriately so.

The cadavers all are nude, and the mortician strips later in the play so he can again fondle Isabella. Forget the days when actors showed nudity in dim light, briefly in Hair, and when the directors of The Full Monty exploded strobes in the face of the audience so you couldn’t quite see the quick exposure of the male strippers. Isabella shows full nudity in bright light for over an hour. The remarkable thing is that this is not sexually provocative. And on one can object that the nudity is gratuitous.

The production includes comedy, as when Lucio pulls a body from the freezer and the mortician unzips the body bag and Claudio tumbles out onto the floor. Claudio protests: “Fellow, why dost thou show me thus to the world?” His lines faithfully follow Claudio’s complaint in Measure, when he is paraded through town as a display of the new government’s stringency.

The actors deserve the highest praise for their guts in revealing their bodies and for their convincing portrayal of the characters. Co-artistic directors Bauriedel and van Riegersberg are Claudio and Angelo, Randy Rand is Lucio, Corinna Burns is Juliet and Charles Conwell is the understated mortician. Birgit Huppuch as Isabella combines the rage mentioned above with a beatific radiance that makes the characterization memorable. Dan Rothenberg directs this ensemble effort.

Below, van Riegersberg amd Huppuch in other roles: