A shutdown of the federal government only comes along every so often, but crises of leadership are nothing new. Since this week is shaping up to be a good one for some reflection on this point, let’s turn our attention to one of Shakespeare’s shrewder studies of civic disruption, Measure For Measure, and the modernized production currently playing at Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Director Jonathan Munby’s imagining sets the show in late 1930s Vienna, during a time when the freewheeling cultural capital finds its more artful impulses suddenly clamped down. The arrival of fascism brings on a storm front not merely of opposing political tactics, but of fundamentally different notions of leadership, as the lenient lifestyles endorsed by the Duke (Kurt Rhoads) give way to the strictures of his conservative successor Angelo (Scott Parkinson).
We interviewed Rhoads and Parkinson to get their observations on these two complex characters, the effects of Munby’s 20th-century setting, and what they’ve learned over time about reputation and responsibility.
Hunter Styles: As far as the plot of Measure For Measure goes, the Duke and Angelo couldn’t be more different. The Duke, who seems to govern with a relatively fair hand, declares early in the show that he will leave Vienna. But he soon re-appears, disguised, in order to spy on how his chosen replacement, the judge Angelo, assumes control. Naturally, the two men differ greatly. But what motivates these opposing values?
Kurt Rhoads: The Duke acts from the heart. It can be hard to see that, because he ends up manipulating a lot of people. But when he steps out of power and goes into disguise — when he finds out, in other words, what’s truly happening in Vienna under Angelo’s rule — his heart leaps out. What started as a self-centered attempt to preserve his own rule over a kingdom becomes an opportunity for him to empathize with his people. His heart is in the right place, which means he is allowed to have a more fluid personality.
So at the end, when the Duke comes back to set things right, we find him to be a lot more forgiving of others than Angelo is. The Duke gives people second chances. He provides counsel. And he does this because he likes to improvise and he trusts his own instincts. He knows he has been too lax in the past, and he sees a remedy for it.
Scott Parkinson: I think we call Measure For Measure a ‘problem play’ because a lot of the characters’ actions seem ambiguous. It can be hard to tease out these people’s motivations. But this is a play that I’ve been fascinated by for a long time. Quite frankly, Angelo isn’t a role that I’d ever expected to play, because I think he’s so far from who I am as a human being. So I was very excited about the chance to connect with a character that at first felt so far away — to figure out what his passions are.
I talked with Jonathan a bit before going into rehearsal and I did some research on Vienna in the 1930s. I started to think of Angelo as a kind of poor man’s Hitler. He’s a very passionate ideologue, fiery and darkly charismatic.
But that changed when we got into rehearsal. Once we started to explore it, we realized that we wanted to make Angelo this guy who’s kind of dead from the neck down. He’s very tight and physically repressed, with a somewhat robotic personality. There are flashes of the ideologue that come out at times, but mainly he’s buttoned-down. And this tension between what’s on his inside and what’s on his outside is part of what makes him complicated.
Styles: This production opens with a bawdy, decadent vision of prewar Vienna. How does this particular setting impact how you’ve developed these characters?
Parkinson: Sometimes I like the blank-stage approach to performing Shakespeare, but I do appreciate being put into a really specific world like this. It influences the tone, and it places you in a way that allows for firmer footing. My physicality would really change if we were setting the show in the Elizabethan period.
For Angelo, it’s just as much about what he hasn’t let in from the outside world. This man has spent his whole life in a struggle against sexuality. Suddenly he has this explosive sexual awakening, and it’s both terrifying and funny how hypocritical he becomes as a result of his newfound power. I’ve seen some Angelos played as very serious with no comedy, and some played almost entirely for laughs. In this case, we weren’t interested in going primarily for laughs. But there is comedy that arises naturally from these scenes, simply from character and situation.
Rhoads: The Duke is very involved in this world from the beginning. There’s actually a lot more highlighting of the Duke’s own sexuality in this production. He’s not merely an observer of his country’s decadence and debauchery — he’s a participant within it, prostitution and drug use included. And that’s a very different idea than how it’s often done.
The Duke’s goals are sometimes interpreted as altruistic, since he’s trying to clean up the country. But in this case it’s not just about the country. He is in danger of losing himself into this world. I think the Duke has hit the bottom in some way, which is why he brings about this political change. It’s a lot more personal than, ‘How do I help Vienna?’ and a lot more like, ‘How do I keep Vienna from ruining my life?’
Styles: Angelo and the Duke don’t share a whole lot of stage time, but thematically they’re at loggerheads for much of the show. What do they see in each other, and why are they still so different at show’s end?
Rhoads: In this production, I think the Duke is aware that if he starts enforcing the laws himself it will make him look hypocritical, given how lenient he’s been until now. The Duke sees Angelo as the perfect guy to lead because he’s such a straight-arrow, letter-of-the-law kind of guy. But the Duke also thinks Angelo might be too good to be true. The experiment is put in place because the Duke wants to see whether power changes Angelo. We know from the beginning that the Duke suspects that Angelo may not hold up to it.
The first time I did Measure For Measure, I thought that Angelo and the Duke were locked against each other. But I find that’s less true this time. The Duke is testing Angelo by putting him in the hot seat, but I think he really does need Angelo. The crumbling state of Vienna isn’t something that can be corrected without Angelo’s help. So there’s a symbiotic feel to their relationship.
Scott and I did Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra together here at Shakespeare Theatre. So I was really tickled when I heard he was playing the role. He’s intense, which of course is a great quality to bring to Angelo. I think what I love about Scott — that intensity — is the same thing that the Duke sees in Angelo.
Parkinson: As a leader, Angelo follows his authoritarian impulses. But he’s also prone to this earlier in the play, when he’s a follower of the Duke. The Duke has let the city go to seed, sure, but he’s still an authority figure, and in Angelo’s mind that’s a person that must be looked up to. Angelo’s worked his way up to where he is alongside the Duke because he’s good at following orders. He defies the Duke’s wishes later, but he can’t make it to power without the Duke’s blessing. So it’s a complicated relationship Angelo has with someone he both respects and doesn’t respect.
Toward the end, he says this about the Duke: “O my dread lord, I should be guiltier than my guiltness to think I can be undiscerneable when I perceive your grace, like power divine, hath look’d upon my passes.” It’s like he thinks of the Duke almost like a God-like figure. He’s saying: you’ve presided over all of this almost like God. That’s a telling line, I think.
Kurt is an actor I really love and respect. It’s so great to have him in that role.
Measure for Measure
Closes October 27, 2013
450 7th Street NW
2 hours, 45 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $40 – $100
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Rhoads: I actually played the Duke thirteen years ago, and I feel lucky for a chance to play him again now that I’m in my mid-fifties. I am finding more gravitas in the part now. It’s really great to get a chance to find new depth in the part as a more seasoned actor.
The Duke isn’t a democratically elected official, for one thing, and in that case you have to think about an heir to your position. You start thinking about the future, in other words. That happens a lot more to a man in his fifties than to a man in his forties. You start thinking: What will happen after I’m gone? That idea feels very central to me.
Parkinson: When you’re faced with playing a Shakespearen role that you’ve played earlier in your life, you really do get a stronger sense of what an amazing writer he is. Earlier this year I played Hamlet, which is a role I played over a decade ago. And it was extraordinary to come back to that part. The first time, I was a very young man who had no sense of his own mortality. Then, when I came back to it last year as I was hitting early-middle age, it felt like a completely different play.
When you get the chance to approach a Shakespeare play repeatedly over time, from different vantage points in your life, the meaning in his words is deeper and richer each time. And you experience this feeling most immediately when you’re playing a role that you’ve played before.
I’d love to play any Shakespeare role again. You’ll never get any of them right! You finish a production and there’s a million things you still want to do with the character, every time. The work is never done — you can only do the best you can at the age you are.
DCTS reviews Measure for Measure
Measure For Measure plays at the Shakespeare Theatre Company through October 27.