What is sin? This is a question that Spicy Witch Productions explores with their two plays in repertory, an “audacious cut” of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and the premiere of The Virtuous Fall of the Girls of Our Lady of Sorrows by playwright in residence Gina Femia. The first is set in present-day Vienna, the second is set in post-9/11 New York, and both take place in worlds where expectations for women are contradictory and designed for them to fail.
Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s famous “problem plays.” Minnie, a main character in The Virtuous Fallplayed by Renita Lewis, writes a sequel to Measure for Measure in lieu of writing a final paper for English class, sending all of the characters (save thevirtuous Isabella) to Hell to appease the administration in her strict Catholic school. Spicy Witch’s production of Measure for Measure, meanwhile, modernizes several aspects of the text, turning the kind Duke into Chief Justice Vincentia (Mia Canter) who wears a Ruth Bader Ginsburg-esque collar, Claudio (Stephen Zuccaro) into a disgraced but decent Senator, and Isabella (Pearl Shin) into an intern at a women’s health care provider.
Both of these adaptations take liberties with the original text in a purposefully feminist manner to fix the problems in the problem play. What could be a gimmick in the hands of less thoughtful directors than Phoebe Brooks (Measure) and Blayze Teicher (Virtuous Fall) is instead a powerful statement. While any adaptation of a Shakespeare play must honor the language, as this cast ably does, one of the best moments in Measure involves Isabella silently contemplating the portrait of a different Supreme Court justice who shares a disturbing resemblance with the predatory Angelo (Blake Kelton Prentiss).
The characters in both Measure for Measure and The Virtuous Fall discuss the concept of sin – what is sin, who gets to decide what sin is, and what is a just punishment for those who commit sin. The narratives of both plays progress differently but reach a similar conclusion that breaking the law, whether it is the law of the land or the law of the Catholic Church, is not the same as doing something evil. A moving speech from Imogene (Alia Guidry) in The Virtuous Fall rejects the premise that she is inherently sinful for being gay. (Her name is also similar to another Shakespeare heroine, Cymbeline’s Imogen, who was wrongfully accused of adultery.)
Where the plays differ is in their portrayal of morality’s gatekeepers. Measure’s Angelo is the worst kind of hypocrite, setting different standards for himself than for others, abusing his power, and enjoying seeing others in pain. The Virtuous Fall’s Sister Ignatius (Mia Canter) is a more sympathetic figure; even when she’s wrong, her advice comes from a sincere desire to help her students avoid eternal punishment. This is a woman who has made many personal sacrifices to be in a place where she can counsel others; she needs to believe what she’s saying is right.
The cast is strong in both productions, easily adapting to Shakespeare’s language in Measure and convincingly playing high school students in The Virtuous Fall. All of the performers hinted at the rich inner lives of their characters, showing the subtext behind the text. The biggest standout is Pearl Shin; her dual performance of the strong-willed Isabella and the naive Mathilda made me forget I was watching the same actor on back-to-back nights.
Of the two shows, The Virtuous Fall is the stronger production partially by virtue of being longer. Measure for Measure’s 90-minute cut, while impressive in the way it edited the story into the essentials, it left little room for its best moments to breathe despite the strength of the cast. I don’t think anyone in the audience would have minded spending twenty more minutes with those characters. Both productions, however, are important contributions to the conversation about how the world treats female and nonbinary sexes and genders as inherently sinful.
Measure for Measure and The Virtuous Fall are playing in repertory at The Flea Theater.