- Measure for Measure
The Ten Thousand Things production of Measure for Measure took its cue from two key passages that lay out the tension between power and empathy. The first of these serves as part of the Duke’s rationale for his appointment of Angelo, along with Escalus, to clean up Viennese vice and for his disguise as a means of observing Angelo at work: “Hence shall we see / If power change purpose, what our seemers be.” Director Michelle Hensley’s production interrogated the perquisites, prerogatives, and responsibilities of power—especially the disjunction between its stated aims [End Page 297] and its exercise. The production was comic but relentless in its critique of power, whether Angelo’s or Escalus’s or the Duke’s. Even the Duke’s penchant for theatrical disguise and revelation suggested both the scope of his power and its limits and failings.
The other passage, Isabella’s famous argument to Angelo, offered the production’s alternative to power:
. . . Go to your bosom; Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know That’s like my brother’s fault: if it confess A natural guiltiness such as is his, Let it not sound a thought upon your tongue Against my brother’s life.
In this passage, empathy—“the very old idea that you need to put yourself in the other’s place,” according to Hensley’s brief note on the play—serves as a counterweight to power. Not surprisingly, given the company’s mission to bring theater, and Shakespeare in particular, to underserved populations, including inner-city and rural communities, nursing homes, and prisons, Hensley underscored the tension between power and compassion in this problem play. Though the interpretation was hardly novel, the production proved compelling in part because its purveyors knew to whom they were speaking.
That confluence between the needs of the audience and a production that offered the possibility of hope was evident in almost every element here, but three were particularly instructive: cross-gender casting, race-conscious casting, and doublings. Because of its small scale, Ten Thousand Things has regularly cast across gender, often out of simple necessity or where the shift was minimal, as with Karen Wiese-Thompson’s playing a generic servant in an early scene and Mistress Overdone and Mariana later. But having the Duke played by the imposing Suzanne Warmanen, who was referred to as Duke but acknowledged a woman, as if Duke were gender-neutral title of honor like President, raised significant issues—as well as some problems. Warmanen’s resonant voice bespoke authority; no one would question this woman in power. At the same time, as one of only two actors who performed no other role, Warmanen’s cross-dressed stint as a friar underscored that the play’s structure already doubled this role. The masquerade exposed the Duke’s faith in her capacity to right injustices as the presumption of the powerful, whatever their gender. This Duke was an evident double-dealer. [End Page 298]
TTT also cast actors of color in many roles. But the casting, as in the past, was not exactly “blind”: Hensley had on another occasion noted that casting an African-American woman as the Duke in Othello spoke to the effects of position and power on our perception and valuation of race and something like that significance, though more pervasive, attached to race here. The production cast and doubled African-American actors India Gurley as Escalus and Julietta, as well as a nun, and Nathan Barlow as Claudio, Elbow, and Abhorson; Sonja Parks, undoubled, played Isabella. Asian-American actor Kurt Kwan played characters who responded to the...