When Shakespeare met Orwell

The set design of the Dramat’s production of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” is meant to evoke the layers of characters, “dark corners” and “failures of grids” that fill the story.
The set design of the Dramat’s production of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” is meant to evoke the layers of characters, “dark corners” and “failures of grids” that fill the story. Photo by Tory Burnside Clapp.


When most people think of a Shakespearean comedy, the phrase “dystopian metropolis center in a 20th-century netherworld” rarely comes to mind. Yet that’s how Alexi Sargeant ’15, director of this fall’s Dramat Experimental Production, “Measure for Measure,” describes the Vienna brought to life on the Yale Repertory Theatre stage this weekend.

This dystopian concept pervades the set, a dark trellis of misaligned gridding and protruding shards of a city. The nontraditional setting evokes works like “1984” by George Orwell and “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley, and is meant to reflect the play’s themes of political corruption and the darkness of human desires.

The production’s staging fits the comedy’s widespread categorization as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” Sargeant said the one rule of comedy the play does not break is that no characters die, although the darkly humorous “Measure for Measure” pushes the envelope in a scene in which a character narrowly evades getting beheaded.

“The unrecognizable, modern setting draws attention to the play’s moral struggle, which can happen anywhere, anytime, to anyone. It can happen in your home,” said stage manager Pek Shibao ’15.

Sargeant said he wanted highlight the Orwellian elements of the play by creating a Vienna that is a character in and of itself, calling it “a city that has the trappings of a totalitarian order that has fallen by the wayside.” When the character of Angelo reactivates laws against fornication and enacts a secret police, the stage’s city is plastered with posters of Angelo’s face, echoing Orwell’s idea of “Big Brother.”

“They don’t say ‘Angelo is watching you,’ but it’s close enough,” Sargeant added.

Set designer Jonah Coe-Scharff ’14 drew inspiration from early Soviet-era Structuralists like Yakov Chernikov to create the imposing set.

“Like the play, the set is about the failure of grids,” Sargeant said. “There are painted pieces that represent the city, its buildings and industrial smog, that are all not quite aligned with grids imposed by the trellis that is basis of the set.”

Sargeant added that since the character of the Duke is described in the text as “the duke of dark corners,” the design team wanted to create a “set with dark corners,” filled with secrets that are revealed throughout the play.

Marisa Kaugars ’15 designed the play’s costumes to reflect the duality of the city: the clean, sharp world of Angelo and the Duke, and Vienna’s seedy “underbelly.”

“Aesthetically, the underworld is more retro, the upper world is more futuristic,” Kaugars said, adding that experimenting with materials led her to create pieces like a chain mail skirt and a basket reed headpiece.

Shibao said these two distinct worlds create more activity and confusion in the play, which this production highlights by only using 12 actors for about 25 roles.

“There are many layers of people coming and going,” Shibao said. “It’s basically a huge mess, except for the parts where Angelo is trying to restore order, but of course that doesn’t work out very well.”

He said this created a sense of tension that “everything’s waiting to snap at some point.”

Actor Lucie Ledbetter ’15 said the dystopian vision reflects “The Hunger Games,” which is an appropriate choice for “Measure for Measure.”

“A lot of times, Shakespeare plays are interpreted with pop culture to just be a cool setting, but I think in this way, that decision makes sense,” Ledbetter said, adding that the theme of political corruption is especially applicable to the modern world.

“Measure for Measure” opens Thursday at 8 p.m. and runs through Saturday.

Correction: Sept. 27

An earlier version misspelled the name of Alexi Sargeant ’15.

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