Friday, February 15, 2008

In Defense of the Bad Guy

If you've spent any time in a talk-back session with me, you've probably heard me gleefully admit that the only thing I might like better than creating art is talking about creating art. This blog is quite the enabler for me, isn't it? It certainly gives me a great opportunity to talk about making Measure for Measure, which has been among the most rewarding experiences of my artistic life.

Since about halfway through our production process for Measure, James Bond (the director, not the fictional spy) and I have shared a similar experience: that of defending Angelo, the assumed "villain" of the play. With friends and colleagues, at home or at the Shakespeare Association of America conference last month, in every conversation we end up in about the show, it seems like our production's interpretation of Angelo becomes central. That's a bit of a red herring; yes, we have found an approach toward the character that we can't find much if any precedent for in the show's long production history (though we believe it to be completely supported by the text), but it changes a lot more than just Angelo. The whole triangle of Angelo - Isabella - Duke is shifted if you begin with the assumption that Angelo isn't a villain.

"Wait a minute," Shakespeare Scholar objects. "Angelo condemns Claudio to death for fornication, a crime that has gone unpunished in Vienna for 19 years. He tries to coerce Claudio's sister Isabella--a novice nun, by the way--to sleep with him to save her brother, and after he thinks he has slept with her he still orders Claudio put to death. How is this guy not a villain? He's a rapist and a murderer! And besides, the Spark Notes edition lists his character as 'Angelo: the villain of the play'."

Well, first of all, that's why I hate Spark Notes and their ilk, which bring the play down to the level of the reader, rather than the Arden or Folger editions, which endeavor to raise the reader up to the level of the text.

Secondly, Angelo fails to either rape Isabella or murder Claudio. If he's a villain, he's not a very competent one. Mariana, his spurned fiancee, substitutes for Isabella in the silent darkness of Angelo's garden house, and she is far from an unwilling participant in the act. And Claudio is spared by the disguised Duke and the Provost, who substitute the convenient head of the fever-slain pirate Ragozine for Claudio's. But the point is well taken; he certainly has ill intent for much of the play.

However, he's not doing these things in a vacuum. Angelo is no Iago, who performs his deeds out of hatred and jealousy; he's no Macbeth, who acts out of ambition and wife-whipping. When presented with a position of authority based solely on the fact that he has a reputation as a strict and righteous man, Angelo begs the Duke to give him some lesser responsibility. He has no idea what to do. When presented with policy decisions, he has no background to draw on for anything other than strict interpretation of the law.

Angelo reminds me of myself. When I got my first job as actor/road manager for a Theatre IV tour, I was a jerk. I thought I needed to act like a boss; I believed that my right to manage was assumed, where in reality it needed to be demonstrated. I was terrible at the job, and I made some very nice people hate me. I was Angelo.

Then Isabella (played by Liz Blake) shows up, gorgeous and brilliant, probably the first girl Angelo has ever been this close to and the first person he's met in town who's as smart and virtuous as he himself is. Having resisted temptation all his life by removing himself from it, he now finds himself not just tempted by Isabella, but, I believe, genuinely and sincerely in love with her. And, truth be told, in a diferent play they'd be a great couple.

So Angelo is in love for the first time. He's 35 years old, he's having all the hormonal rush of a 13-year-old, and he has the power of Claudio's life and death in his hands. He simply doesn't have the experience to resist using the powerful leverage he has to achieve the powerful urges he has. Then, when Isabella returns to discuss the matter, she repeatedly, innocently, seems to be saying "yes" to his thinly-veiled offer to trade Claudio's life for her love. Finally, he's just been tuned to too high a pitch, and strung along for too long, and he snaps.

Does that excuse him? No. But it goes a long way toward explaining him.

Viewing the play's antagonist through the lens of explainable action changes everything about the characters who interact with him. Doesn't Isabella bear some of the blame for the way things spiral out of control? She meets with him alone, she eggs him on, she stays in the room long after Angelo has made his intentions clear, and she certainly has argued passionately that her brother's fornication was no big deal. Of course she doesn't deserve to be propositioned, threatened, or sexually assaulted, but she is far from blameless for the situation she has placed herself in. Some of the show's company--including the director--have even posited that Isabella's refusal to give up her virginity for her brother's life could be seen as every bit as unreasonable as Angelo's insistence that any act of fornication is punishable by death.

The biggest culprit, in my mind, is the Duke (played by Dave White), our supposed co-protagonist with Isabella. First, he places Angelo in a position of power for which he is completely unprepared. Next, when things start falling apart, the Duke doesn't jump out of his disguise and set things aright; he chooses instead to remain concealed and concoct a series of elaborate plans to hook Angelo up with his ex and send him a substitute head. Most dastardly is his decision to keep Isabella ignorant of the fact that Claudio's life has been saved, holding onto that information for a later time, when he will delight her with good news just in time to ask for her hand in marriage.

This, to my mind, is every bit as nasty as anything Angelo does. How is the Duke's manipulating Isabella's love for her brother in order to get her as his wife any better than Angelo's manipulating Isabella's love for her brother in order to get her as a one-night stand? Certainly, the Duke is no "villain." He does save the day in the end; no one is executed or raped, and everyone (except the unrepentant Lucio) ends up in some degree of happily-ever-after. But it's very telling that Isabella has no lines after the Duke proposes to her. For such an intelligent, verbose character to have nothing to say is not an accident for a writer such as Shakespeare.

As an actor, I always want to love and understand the character I'm playing. Loving Angelo the manipulative strict attempted rapist is obviously harder than loving Angelo the lovestruck helpless broken-hearted screw-up. It's much more playable to wrap my head around the idea that he's a generally good guy in way over his head who makes terrible, terrible decisions and feels awful about them afterward. And he is devastated by his choices, separating himself from Shakespeare's true villains with a soliloquy at the end of act four wherein he expresses profound regret for his actions despite the fact that he is convinced he will get away scott-free. Even at the end, when he has been forgiven by Isabella and pardoned by the Duke, he still apoligizes, "crav[ing] death more willingly than mercy."

To my mind, that's no villain. And I don't think that's just better for the actors; I think that makes for a better audience experience. We see something of ourselves in Cassius, in Hotspur, and in Bolingbroke, something much more approachable than the unrepentant villainy of Iago, Aaron, and Richard III. I think we've all gotten ourselves into bad situations from which we couldn't extricate ourselves. We've all lied and been caught in it. And in the end, we've all been in that moment where maybe we would rather just be caught cleanly than get away with what we know we did wrong.

I've been Angelo. I've been the bad guy. I think we all have.

Disagree? That's what the "comments" link is for, my friends. And we have two more Acts of Faith discussions scheduled, after the shows on Sunday, February 17, and Friday, February 29. Or, if you just want to tear my head off after the show, I can easily be persuaded to argue the point over a pint at Penny Lane after any show.

Photos by Eric Dobbs.


Frank Creasy said...

I don't know about all this, Whamm, but I have to say that I'm looking forward to seeing a play where 2 of 3 men have LESS hair than me!

Okay, truly though: While I'm about the furthest thing you can get from a Shakespearean scholar, I'm a big believer in reading the text and letting my "own discretion be my tutor", to borrow a phrase. Beyond careful attention to both the verse AND the prose (which has its' own rhythm), Shakespeare's text, I believe, offers as many clues as any other playwright's scripts about the different directions you can take a character. Some are fairly plainly laid out for the actor, while others are very much up to the actor's own discretion.

I felt much the same as you do now, Andrew, when I approached Gonzalo in The Tempest. There were some who suggested I play it more like a fumbling, Polonius-style meddler. Anthony Lucianno pointed me in a different direction, aiming at the heart of a character who saw the beauty and goodness where others saw ugliness and cynicsm. Gonzalo as spiritual idealist rang more true for me, and suddenly I could see the path to a character that spoke to me and, I hope, also spoke to the audience.

I'm very pleased to hear such wonderful things about "Measure", and I look forward to your Angelo and the other wonderful performances I'm sure I'll enjoy next weekend. It's a wonderful thing when an audience can come to see a time honored script presented with freshness and vitality so it can be discovered as it was intended: For an audience that is seeing it for the first time. In my case, that will certainly be true. I've never seen a production of this script. As such, this one will be definitive for me!

Congrats to Richmond Shakespeare, to James Alexander Bond, and to the "Measure" cast for a great success.

Andrew Hamm said...

Whole lotta bald going on in this show, that's certain...