To kick off its 2019-20 season, the Ensemble Theatre Company is showcasing a Shakespearean classic, albeit with a more modern edge. Opening on October 5 at Santa Barbara’s New Vic with previews on October 3, the company’s production of “Measure For Measure” will remove William Shakespeare’s tale of sexual power and tyrannical authority from its initial setting of 1600s Vienna, and instead place it in the present day. According to director Jonathan Fox, this is apt as the questions the play poses have only gotten more significant with time.
“The play is so intricate and fascinating with its moral dilemmas… It’s always been relevant but is even more relevant today,” he said.
Mr. Fox first considered helming a production of “Measure For Measure” when the #metoo movement was at a fever pitch during the hearings surrounding sexual assault allegations against U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Set in Vienna during the early 1600s, the play centers on a nun named Isabella, whose brother Claudio is sentenced to be executed for impregnating a woman out of wedlock. Isabella then goes to see Angelo, the Duke of Vienna’s stringent and moralistic deputy, who is placed in charge of the city after the Duke decides to leave. When the deputy demands that Isabella give him her virginity in exchange for Claudio’s life, the nun spends the duration of the play wrestling with this dilemma.
As he believes utilizing old, traditionally Shakespearean costumes runs the risk of making the play seem like a “museum piece,” Mr. Fox decided to update it in order to keep it fresh. The production’s modern touches include the use of video screens to put the pieces sexual themes into a contemporary context. As today so much hooking up occurs via online apps and a plethora of sexual content is available to view via the internet, the screens are used to set the play in a world where so much sex is available via these mediums.
According to a press release, the show’s cast features many returning actors from previous ETC productions. Actress Lily Gibson, who acted as the titular protagonist in the company’s 2016 production of Tennessee Williams’ “Baby Doll,” will star as Isabella while Ak Murtahda and Trevor Peterson will return to ETC in the roles of the “Duke” and “Claudio,” respectively. While Mr. Fox does enjoy the prospect of working with new actors, casting previous collaborators does allow him to click with the actors immediately.
“With actors I’ve worked with, I can hit the ground running,” he said.
As his production examines themes of sex and the capricious nature of government, Mr. Fox hopes the viewers leave the theater considering the questions posed by the playwright and walk away with even more questions on these topics. He assured the News-Press that Mr. Shakespeare won’t give them any answers upon the play’s conclusion.
“Shakespeare in this play doesn’t give answers, he presents questions and he’s presenting a really deep look at sexual power, sexual repression, and sexual oppression,” he said.
Tickets for Ensemble Theatre Company’s production of “Measure For Measure” can be purchased online at etcsb.org or by calling the ETC box office at (805) 965-5400. The play opens on October 5 at 8:00 p.m. and runs through October 20. Performances will be held from Wednesday through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and on Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. There will also be a 7:00 p.m. show on Tuesday, October 8 as well as a 4:00 p.m. matinee performance on Saturday, October 12. The October 3 preview will also start at 8:00 p.m.