Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Measure of a Memory: Shakespeare (in Stonington) will always be with us

More than a month has passed since the lights went down on the Stonington Opera House production of "Measure for Measure," and each year I try to reflect on where the play goes once it has been passed from the stage and into our collective memory. Truth is, "Measure for Measure" is not my favorite Shakespeare work. (Don't think less of me for admitting that "Romeo and Juliet" -- perhaps as a symbol of my own longing for youth -- is still at the top of my list.) (Except when "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is at the top of the list; or when "Richard III" is swirling in my thoughts; or maybe when "Macbeth" sneaks into my thoughts; and certainly "The Tempest" is in the mix.)

In any case.

As much as I enjoyed diving into Shakespeare's text this summer, I suspected I'd be done with "Measure for Measure" when it closed. Not true. Although I never made sense of the love liaisons forced at the end of the story, I did come to think more deeply about justice, mercy and forgiveness.

And apparently, I'm not the only one who is seeing these themes echo through Shakespeare's lens at the moment. Our Shake Stonington friend and leading Bard scholar Stephen Greenblatt of Harvard University writes about this summer's Central Park production of "The Merchant of Venice" in The New York Review of Books (Sept. 30, 2010). Although many critics believe "Measure for Measure" is one of Shakespeare's so-called "problem plays," "Merchant" is sometimes also included in that group -- largely because, like "Measure," the comedy is so closely aligned to tragedy that a certain anxiety over form rattles our structural cage.

Greenblatt asserts that the comedic ending of "Merchant" has such "intolerable strains" put on it that it's almost impossible to bring it off successfully. The same is true for "Measure," and I grappled with my own sense of how to read the ending in a story for the Huffington Post -- even as Stonington director Jeffrey Frace accomplished a graceful and nicely ambiguous ending to "Measure" that depended on the nightly mood of actor Stephanie Dodd as Isabella. But Greenblatt's estimation of the NYC production's end echo in my thoughts: "disappointment, betrayal, and recrimination lurk just below the surface." Also true for "Measure." With one exception: the young lovers Claudio and Juliet, who offer some hope for the marriage bed as an equitable one.

In addition to the scholarly insight of Greenblatt's story, I found another resonance from reading his article. As Greenblatt points out, there's much to see about our contemporary life in Shakespeare's works. Namely: the treatment of "the other" -- whether a Jew, a Moor or a couple that gets pregnant out of wedlock.

I suspect the Vienna of "Measure for Measure," with its shifting definitions of justice and forgiveness, will continue to stimulate ideas, as it did again recently when I saw the ArtsEmerson production of "The Laramie Project" at the Cutler-Majestic Theater in Boston. "The other" will always be with us -- in Venice, in Vienna, in Wyoming, in Maine.

And each year Shakespeare in Stonington counters the more pervasive and pernicious sense of "other" by allowing us to come together as a community in the library, in the theater, in media, restaurants and homes to achieve fuller, richer understandings of our inheritance and our responsibilities. The encounter with Shakespeare also allows us to carry these stories in our thoughts and to look to them for guidance. "The quality of mercy is not strained." "Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall." These plays teach us what the Stonington Opera House already knows: "All the world's a stage."
Photo: Tommy Piper as Angelo in "Measure for Measure" at the Stonington Opera House. Credit: Linda Nelson/Opera House Arts