William Shakespeare was Kathryn Walsh’s first theater love.
His language won her heart, the way his words and sentiment seemed to apply to all people across the span of time.
“His writing about emotion and argument is so strong, that to me it feels like a beautiful container for an actor to fill up with their feelings,” said Walsh, a Chicago-based director. “We can really lean into Shakespeare in a way we can’t with other works.”
Walsh will direct “Measure for Measure” for TheatreWorks in its annual summer “Shakespeare at the Ranch” production, staged under a giant tent on the lawns of the Rock Ledge Ranch Historic Site. It opens Wednesday and runs through July 21.
“Measure for Measure” doesn’t fall into either of Shakespeare’s tidy camps: tragedy or comedy. It straddles both worlds as a problem play, a classification it received because, though Shakespeare deemed it a comedy, it boasts intense and less than funny content.
The setting is Vienna, a city in chaos because its ruler, Duke Vincentio (Abner Genece), hasn’t enforced laws for 17 or so years. He schemes to reset the kingdom and tells townsfolk he’s leaving and putting Angelo (Matt Holzfeind), a morally upright man, in charge to enforce the laws. The duke doesn’t leave, though, and disguises himself as a friar to observe the experiment.
Angelo’s first act is to arrest a citizen, Claudio, for getting his fiancee pregnant, an act punishable by death. When Claudio’s sister, Isabella (Annie Barbour), begs Angelo to spare his life, he falls in love with her and tells her if she sleeps with him, he’ll set her brother free. The play famously ends with silence. Duke Vincentio has resumed his role and proposes to Isabella, but Shakespeare gives her no lines of response.
The cast will feature some actors making their TheatreWorks debut, as well as local favorite Sammie Joe Kinnett, no stranger to the professional theater company or to Shakespearean roles.
It’s a timely tale, Walsh said, what with Angelo’s sexual manipulation and the lack of Isabella’s response to the duke’s proposal. It’s also a play that doesn’t get as much stage time as many of Shakespeare’s other works, mainly due to the enigmatic ending that asks a lot of its viewers.
“Many people have ended this play wildly differently,” said Walsh. “Some end it happily; some directors end it as the worst thing that could happen to her.”
One of the show’s most well-known lines also brings it up to present day. After Angelo offers Isabella the chance to free her brother through sex, she resists and threatens to tell everyone. He mocks her and says, “Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true,” essentially telling her that everyone will believe him over her.
That’s the Shakespeare that Walsh fell in love with — the ability to write for the ages.
“That might be the thing that modern folk, who have paid attention to the news, will resonate with,” she said.
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