Wheaton’s Arena Theater is starting out their 2017-2018 season by performing “Measure for Measure,” showing through Saturday, Nov. 11. In the world of Shakespeare, few plays are more complex than this one. It is a text that has been debated and examined since its first performance in 1604. Since there is no complete surviving text of what Shakespeare originally wrote, it’s been mostly pieced together by scholars. In addition to the lack of reliability, the play is known for its outlandish story, full of profound moral questions juxtaposed with moments of dark humor. The story revolves around a ruthless ruler and a man who has been condemned to death for impregnating his fiancé, yet it is still classified as a comedy. So what does this play have to offer to the Wheaton community?
Seniors John Ingraham and Jenna Conway play two of the leads, the Duke and Isabella, respectively. They both cited past interaction with the work as important in their preparation for the roles. Ingraham saw a production several years ago and remembers it as “one of the most impacting experiences I’ve ever had, which is really one of the reasons I was really excited to audition for it.”
Conway said that she performed one of Isabella’s monologues for her Shakespearean Theater class last year. Both students admire the work for its complexity and cultural relevance and expressed excitement about taking on the challenge of performing the play at Wheaton.
To prepare to take on the challenge of producing “Measure for Measure,” director Andy Mangin led everyone through 10 days of table work to ensure the cast understood the story and history of the play before attempting to act it. Since the play’s ending is particularly ambiguous, he also discussed its possible interpretations and how to agree on a creative vision.
Yet the play’s complexity is also related to its characters, whose speech is inconsistent with their actions. Conway cited this element as most difficult, wanting to play Isabella faithfully but struggling to understand her from the text. Ingraham also found that the more he tried to learn about the Duke’s motivations as a character, the more issues he had to consider.
The infamous playwright drafted “Measure for Measure” later in his career, at a time when his writing was morally ambiguous and left his audience with more to consider. It’s almost a cynical piece, poking fun at the comedies Shakespeare is known for.
“Shakespeare was not afraid to tackle anything and weave it into a story,” Mangin said. “Like I say in the director’s note, that doesn’t mean those things are solved. But theater is meant to point to a problem and not necessarily offer a solution. A play allows its characters to struggle through things so that, hopefully, we as an audience can recognize ourselves in them.”
Ingraham and Conway believe that the play still has much to offer for a modern audience.
“It’s a really pertinent show for the time we find ourselves in, where very prominent men are being unmasked on a seemingly daily basis for really awful sexual acts in particular,” Ingraham said. “These are questions that were around in Shakespeare’s age and are going to be around really until kingdom come.”
Conway echoed Ingraham’s conclusion. “You should come see this play because of the questions that it asks about religion and morality and who we are on the inside and on the outside,” she said. “This play is particularly interesting to do at Wheaton because the question of the value of sexual purity…still matters here.”
Mangin said he hopes his audience will be challenged. “I think the play asks a lot of questions, and many of those questions are really quite timely and appropriate ones for the Wheaton community.”