This semester, students in THST 350: “Gender, Justice and the Body Politic” examined gender, justice, religion and political life in Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure.” These inquiries led to an adapted performance of the play, which will be staged in the Whitney Humanities Center Theater from Nov. 7–9.
The project, titled “A Workshop Production of Measure for Measure for Measure: An Adaptation,” is a senior project in theater studies for Angela Barel di Sant’Albano ’20 and Sarah Young ’20, and in computing and the arts for Olivia Roth ’20. The play is directed by Director of Undergraduate Studies for Theater Studies Shilarna Stokes, the course’s instructor.
Roth said that although the play was first performed 415 years ago in 1604, the timeless issues that the play addresses make it seem like “it could have been written last year.”
The original play centers around the fate of Claudio, who is sentenced to death for impregnating his lover out of wedlock. His sister, Isabella, intercedes on his behalf. Angelo, the temporary leader of Vienna, offers to free Isabella’s brother only if she has sex with him.
According to Roth, the play is especially relevant in the context of the “Me Too” movement, the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and the allegations of sexual misconduct against Donald Trump. She noted how the play provokes thoughts about “the dismissal of women’s testimonies against men.” In one scene, the character Angelo asks: “Who would believe thee, Isabella?”
“400 years later, that question still doesn’t really have an answer,” Roth said.
Over the course of the semester, students in the production seminar studied Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” and proposed ideas for “interventions.” Possible interventions included adding scenes, adding characters and creating alternative endings.
The seminar’s adaptation brings the story to a contemporary setting, where the three seniors, who all play Isabella, are set in three different worlds. The play alternates between the scenes of a convent, a modern university and a law office, and presents three different endings. At the same time, the adaptation strives to preserve authentic Shakespearean language.
Roth explained that the three storylines allow the adaptation to reflect on how each woman’s circumstances influence their actions. The stories of the three Isabellas diverge and converge, exploring how different moments affect where each Isabella’s storyline concludes. The adaptation aims to show that people in similar positions can experience a range of outcomes, and that “all are very valid responses to a very unfortunate situation,” Roth said.
“The things that happen to Isabella in the play are unfortunately things that happen to many, many women,” Roth said. “There’s not just one story.”
Chayton Pabich Danyla ’21, who plays Angelo in the judicial storyline and two other characters within the other two worlds, said that portraying three characters in the play has been an exercise in emotional flexibility for him.
Pabich Danyla said the cast needed to consider the safest and most truthful way to portray the stories they tell. He added that he learned the importance and necessity of cooling down after working through particularly intense scenes.
“With our subject matter and with the content of this new play, there were often times in rehearsal where us actors would reach an extreme intensity,” Pabich Danyla said. “It was paramount for us to find the time after those moments to breathe, and reconnect with ourselves and our cast members — separate from our characters — and then be ready to move on with not only the remainder of the production, but also our real lives outside of the theater.”
According to Alina Kramp ’22, who plays Angelo’s ex-fiancée Mariana, the class drew inspiration from other plays that they read in class while devising the adaptation. The supplementary readings included “Ruined” by Lynn Nottage and “The Conduct of Life” by María Irene Fornés. Kramp said the interventions add complexity to the original script and make it more understandable to a modern audience.
Kramp said that deciding what to prioritize was difficult, and that calling the show a “workshop” shows how there are many more ideas that can be explored in the play.
Pabich Danyla recalled that the cast began the semester with an “almost infinite number” of interventions — the first reduction of that list in September still had around 100 items. According to Pabich Danyla, the members of the production had to address the dramaturgical question of how to incorporate the interventions into Shakespeare’s text while still maintaining the essence of the original play.
Roth called the project a “labor of love” for all students in the seminar.
“In my opinion, the most important work that we did is not necessarily putting the show up, but the ideas that we went through,” Kramp said.
Roth said that she hopes the production can remind the audience that the issues of power and sexual violence addressed by the play are ongoing and important, even if “nothing is currently plaguing the news.” Kramp added that she hopes the play helps convey that Shakespeare can be accessible and enjoyable.
Shows will occur at 8 p.m. each evening with an additional afternoon show at 2 p.m. on Nov. 9. The Whitney Humanities Center Theater is located at 53 Wall St.
Carrie Zhou | firstname.lastname@example.org