Hoosier Bard is staging Measure for Measure over two weekends at IndyFringe Theatre: last weekend's productions were based upon Shakespeare's "original script," and this weekend's shows (Feb. 28-March 2) will go off of Thomas Middleton's 1621 adaptation.
Shakespeare's "uncensored" version (see below for my qualm with that modifier) turned out to sound a lot like the one we've been hearing for years. All your favorite lines were still extant, like Pompey's description of the carnal act as "Groping for trouts in a peculiar river." The basic structure was the same too, and just as problematic as always; Coleridge called it "the most painful - say rather, the only painful - part of his genuine works ... the single exception to the delightfulness of Shakespeare's plays" and "a hateful work" that leaves "our feelings of justice grossly wounded."
Maybe that's all by design; the Biblical concept of just recompense, or talion, may have been designed, in its time, to avoid overzealousness in punishing the transgressor (better an eye for an eye than an eye for two eyes and a pinky toe). But it strikes any thinking person as a brutal, ugly transaction.
So when the capricious king enlists his subordinate to restore that Biblical concept to his kingdom - having him condemn one of his subjects to death for impregnating his (allegedly) soon-to-be wife out of wedlock, according to the rule of a long unenforced law - the results can only play out viciously, with the impotent masses remaining always at the will of a king/director/God pulling the strings. If this is the stuff of comedy, we may well be in Beckett territory.
But if one doesn't think too much about the moral of the story, the comedy can work well, as it did in Hoosier Bard's interpretation, which saw Escalus played exceptionally loudly and lasciviously by Bill Wilkison. What I once read as the Elizabethan equivalent of a fat joke - "your bum is the greatest thing about you" - took on quite the homoerotic cast as delivered (and acted out in cheek-cupping fashion) by Wilkison, all the better to illustrate the ways in which the powerful are corrupted by their appetites in the absence of any lawful curb. And any play that puts a dildo to good use as a prop is A-OK in my book.
But the cast's sincere rendition of the play's tragic elements was doomed from the beginning, mostly because, as Coleridge put it, the play can be so "hateful" and unsparing, and it's hard to relate to characters in such an atmosphere of hate. I was particularly puzzled by why Scott Russell played his Claudio so straight, given that he's conniving enough to send his virgin sister to convince the duke's surrogate to commute his death sentence by employing her feminine wiles.
Two caveats: 1) Because Hoosier Bard refers to itself as the "the theatrical arm" of the New Oxford Shakespeare Project and the vehicle by which the center's leadership might "test editorial theories in the laboratory of performance," the average spectator might expect a given production to be of "Oxford quality," if you will. After all, the center, staffed with top Shakespeare scholars, is hard at work on a new version of Shakespeare that will be used by readers the world round. Why wouldn't the theatrical arm of the center be just as well-funded and -staffed? But Measure for Measure is, in reality, a smartly-directed, enthusiastically-acted production staged by student and community talent - and by no means an expert production. And that's certainly to the benefit of the students and community members involved in the production, who are getting a chance to work with Shakespeare scholars who happen to be in Indy.
2) Unless the center's staff managed to score a dictaphone recording of the 1603 performance of Measure for Measure at the Globe, it's a little bit disingenuous to bill the production as the "original, uncensored" version of the play. Scholars have been trying for centuries to tease out Shakespeare's contributions to the script from Middleton's; to quote one scholar's reaction to a claim that Shakespeare was responsible for an exact number of lines in the play, "It takes a brave man to produce so precise a result from an admittedly corrupt text."