By Kate Rix
Students don’t generally hope they will break a leg while taking a class, but that’s just what the students who acted in and helped produce Measure for Measure were hoping for this fall.
Breaking a leg, in the superstitious lore of the stage, portends a good show.
A cast of 21 student actors met for 25 hours a week for six weeks to prepare for the October run at Zellerbach Playhouse. That’s a big time commitment for a class, but participation in the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies (TDPS) productions are hands-on opportunities for student actors, set designers, lighting technicians and others to learn their craft.
“It’s important when we’re choosing which plays we’re going to produce every season,” says Jennifer Reil, publicity and development manager for TDPS. “It’s not just about putting on a good show. It’s also about maximizing the teaching capacity for all our students to get involved. We ask ourselves, is there a good costume or scenic design element? Are their opportunities for actors, assistant directors and lighting designers? After all, this is their big moment to practice their craft.”
Measure was part of the department’s Main Stage season for the year, which also includes Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, Georges Feydeau’s Sauce for the Goose, and Berkeley Dance Project’s annual showcase featuring a premiere by choreographer and TDPS faculty member Joe Goode. Enrollment for TDPS course credit is required for all students participating in these productions.
The student actors and crew members who were accepted to work on Measure for Measure had their work cut out for them. Measure is considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” — a challenging piece of theater that doesn’t fit easily as a comedy or tragedy. As a satire of human greed and morality, the play is thought provoking and funny, but it is also enigmatic.
“The language in Measure is particularly complex,” Professor Peter Glazer said during an interview over lunch. “We wanted to present as few challenges to the audience as possible, because the play itself is so challenging.”
Measure joins two other plays Shakespeare wrote between 1601and 1604 — Troilus and Cressida and All’s Well that Ends Well — as a pungent and unsettling satire of bad human behavior. In these plays, scholars have written, Shakespeare poses questions about the human condition, but does not offer any satisfactory answers. So the play features none of the redemption of a true tragedy and less humor than a true comedy.
What Measure offers is a rich classroom for the audience, players and crew alike, a chance to explore corruption, power, and infidelity with a healthy dollop of clowning and dark humor. When the Duke of Vienna leaves the city for a while, his deputy cruelly enforces morality laws and sentences a young gentleman, Claudio, to death for having made his fiancée pregnant. The deputy promises to spare Claudio’s life, but only if his sister Isabella, a novice nun, will sleep with him.
Shakespeare creates a vivid character in Lucio, a friend of Claudio’s who brings comic relief to the plot as he jokes about his long and colorful history with the city’s brothels. He also acts as the gadfly and go-between and sets much of the play’s drama into motion.
“I really like Lucio. I love his attitude towards people and life,” says Daniel Desmarais, a senior TDPS major and geography minor who played Lucio during the play’s October run. “It is fun to escape into that world of spoiled, conniving narcissism.”
“As an actor I think comic roles can be intimidating especially in the midst of a play that weighs more on the side of drama,” he says, “because a lot more pressure rides on that character to be able to break up the heavy moments. However I generally feel comfortable playing comic roles and do find a sort of sanctuary in them.”
Providing major support to the production was Alvin Henry, a graduate student in English, who worked as the production’s dramaturge. Henry’s job was to research the historical context of the play and give the actors and director insights into the world in which the play is taking place. The nun Isabella, for example, would have been in training for two years by the time the play begins, Henry found. The play also gets started a full 30 years after the Duke came to power.
“We were constantly turning to Alvin and asking him, ‘what does this line mean?,’” recalls Glazer. “If we don’t understand the time Shakespeare was working in, we cannot interpret his play.”
Glazer, a professional director who joined the TDPS faculty in 2001, set Measure for Measure in a deliberately non-specific time period. The play’s setting is Vienna, where a harsh morality had lapsed. Much of the action takes place on the street outside a bordello or inside a prison. This grittiness comes across through the use of a modern concrete set and contemporary business suits inspired some of the men’s costumes.
Glazer had directorial assistance from TDPS graduate students Scott Wallin and Emily Meade. The cast included 21 student actors — with a wide variety of majors — and a student lighting designer worked alongside department faculty to light the production. The costumes, which elegantly blended Elizabethan and modern details, were designed by Caitlin Kagawa, an undergraduate TDPS major in her third year who had little theater experience before coming to Berkeley. Kagawa prepared the initial design sketches over the summer so they could be ready for auditions the first week of class.
“One of my first images that stuck with me was an Armani suit ad,” Kagawa says. “There is something very regal to be found in a well-tailored suit. It’s cousin images of wealth and power from the Renaissance and Elizabethan eras were full of jewels, fine fabrics and billowy silhouettes. In the cross-breeding of these two ideas, I started to see the beginnings of the play.”
The costumes themselves, which included rich capes and carefully tailored gowns, were sewn by students in the department’s costume shop. Minimal props — just five benches and three stools — a “raked,” or tilted, stage, and a muted, concrete backdrop created a simple and elegant look for the production. In order to move about on the raked stage, actors had to rehearse in their “show shoes” from early on. Generally, the costumes included sturdy, low heels. But a few actors had to wear higher shoes and it took some practice to keep balance while moving on an angled surface.
“I thought that the raked stage coupled with the walls coming at the audience was a great way to show the aggressiveness and uneasiness in the environment,” says set designer Mellie Katakalos, “like it might actually topple over into the audience’s lap.”
In the end, the stage became an expansive and neutral canvas where the actors could group and move about like moving pictures. The pathos and grittiness of the play came through loud and strong in Zellerbach’s Playhouse theater. And no actual legs were broken.
“It’s a challenging play,” says Glazer, “but this is a course. It stretches our students and serves as a marvelous a learning experience for all involved.”