The deceit, the trickery, the blackmail and the sexual politics of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” were the themes kicking around in Jeffrey Frace’s head while he was thinking about his role as director of the play at the Stonington Opera House. The show opens Thursday, Aug. 19, and while it has been months in the making, Frace still hadn’t ironed out the details back in the winter and spring. He needed a setting — a place — for the story.
“It’s a very religious play. There’s lots of talk of sin and souls and an awful lot of the characters talk, in their own words, about their fear of death and curiosity about what happened after,” said Frace, who previously directed the Opera House Art’s 2008 production of “Macbeth.” “We had to set it in a place where religion is a pervasive part of society. And then I thought about Flannery O’Connor.”
O’Connor, the acclaimed American novelist and short story writer, is one of the definitive voices of the Southern Gothic literary subgenre. Her unsentimental, ironic stories deal with moral ambiguity and the nuances of human behavior, and O’Connor, a devout Catholic, explored her religion in her work. Her style was perfect for “Measure for Measure.”
“I started reading her stories and essays again and realized that her kind of voice was just the one to illuminate the story,” he said. “And I grew up in the South, in Nashville, in a religious home, so I knew the setting myself.”
“Measure for Measure” has a complex story dealing with a duke (Rachel Murdy) who leaves a judge, Angelo (Tommy Piper), in the care of his city while he is away on a diplomatic mission. Angelo is a hard-liner on sexual morality, and when young nobleman Claudio (Peter Richards) impregnates his soon-to-be wife, Juliet (Connie Hall), Angelo sentences Claudio to death. Claudio’s sister, Isabella (Stephanie Dodd), a nun, begs Angelo for mercy for her brother, and Angelo says he will — if she’ll sleep with him.
“It’s a very complicated play, and the characters are very complex,” said Frace. “There’s a lot of argument about how sympathetic these characters really are. I asked the actors to really investigate their flaws and failings, and that process was a part of rehearsal. Flannery O’Connor’s stories started with characters, and so for this production, we started rehearsing the play out of sequence, to get to know those characters.”
In keeping with the yearly Shakespeare productions that the Opera House Arts offers, the set and costumes are vividly imagined, with moss-covered buildings, 1950s costumes and lots of hazy Southern atmosphere. Music plays a heavy role as well, and composer Phillip Owen has created original music for the show, incorporating elements of country, folk, spirituals and Georgia Sea Island music.
“We want people to realize, though, that even though there’s a lot of very heavy elements to it, it’s also very funny,” said Frace. “[O’Connor] has a great satirical wit, and as difficult as it gets, there’s a lot of bawdy fun, kind of outre humor in it. It’s a very fun show.”
“Measure for Measure” will be performed at 7 p.m. Aug. 19-21 and Aug. 26-28, and at 2 p.m. Aug. 29 at Stonington Opera House. Tickets are $25.
Arts and culture journalist Alicia Anstead will facilitate public readings of the play at 4 p.m. Aug. 17 at Stonington Public Library and at 7 p.m. Aug. 18 at Chase-Emerson Memorial Library in Deer Isle. On Saturday, Aug. 21, Anstead will lead a post-show “talk back” with noted Shakespeare scholar Yu Jin Ko, who is a professor of English at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
For information, visit www.operahousearts.org.