Feature Q & A – Mary Russell Finds Truth in Shakespeare

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Measure for Measure at the Shakespeare Tavern

Mary Russell and Matt Nitchie in Measure for Measure.

After producing the entire Shakespearean canon, The New American Shakespeare Tavern is attempting to do it again, starting with the comedies in order as they were written. One of the last comedies to be performed in this series, Measure for Measure presents a tale of love, lust, justice and forgiveness that will, naturally, leave you laughing. Learn more about the production and the character of Isabella in our Q & A with Mary Russell.

Who is you character, and how would you describe her?

I play Isabella, a novice nun, about to take her vows.  She is retreating from the world because of the corruption and licentiousness surrounding her in the city of Vienna.  She is faithful, merciful, passionate, and is ardent in her love for her brother and her faith.  In pointing out the virtues of faith and the temptations of human nature, she also reveals the inherent conflict of the two.  Her language in this play is masterful, but she is tentative in her power of persuasion.  She both respects authority but also sees its tendency toward corruption, and sees the flaws in men having absolute power.

What is your character’s importance to plot of the play?

My brother is sentenced to death for getting his girlfriend with child out-of-wedlock.  I go to plead for his life, but the deputy left in charge by the Duke refuses, so I try to entreat to his sense of mercy and forgiveness.  Unfortunately, he falls in love with me and tells me that he will release my brother only if I yield him my virginity.  By the end, I expose the corrupt, hypocritical deputy to the Duke, the Duke learns how to govern, and order and justice are restored to the city.

What do you like most about playing this character?

I love her spirit and intelligence.  She doubts her power at first, but by standing up for what she knows is right and just, she gains the confidence to believe in herself.  This play has some of the most beautiful, intricate, complex language that I have ever spoken.  I pretty much get to go through every emotion; from sheer joy, to the depths of despair and betrayal.  I also have the best scene partners I could ever ask for, people who I’ve known and trusted for years.  It’s truly freeing to feel so safe onstage and to know that I can be completely vulnerable.  It gives me the chance to open up and experience the emotions that just seem to flow out of this text.  Plus, I get to slap the evil deputy.

Do feel that the play’s themes are relevant to today’s society?

I would have to say that forgiveness and mercy are two of the most important themes in this play.  Justice, corruption, faith, and self-righteousness are also important factors.  In this passage Isabella speaks to Angelo about showing mercy to his fellow man and not passing judgment:

“How would you be,
If He, which is the top of judgment, should
But judge you as you are? O, think on that;
And mercy then will breathe within your lips,
Like man new made.”

I think that in today’s political climate this play is very relevant.  It’s all about not judging lest you be judged, as well as corruption in power – two themes that are constantly on news shows and on the internet these days.  In this play the Duke of Vienna is unwilling to enforce laws, and in order to not have to do the dirty work, he leaves a surrogate in charge to carry out the laws that are already on the books.  Angelo, the deputy that is left in charge, sees the world in black and white terms – right and wrong.  Given the chance, he is more than willing to use the system to get what he wants.  To me, this egocentricity is similar to many politicians in today’s society.  The question that arises is whether or not this human nature, or is he just an evil person.  Should he be forgiven if he repents?  Neither the Dukes avoidance of carrying out the laws, nor Angelo’s strict adherence to the letter of the law, proves to be the right way to govern.  The Duke learns that he has to weigh each case individually and give out justice tempered with mercy.

Do you think it is easy for audiences to pick up on that theme?

I think so.  The audience sees Isabella go through the struggles of forgiving those that have done her wrong, and then, in turn, we see the wrong doers repent and find mercy.

Do you think audiences today and audiences in Elizabethan and Jacobean England have more in common than we think?

Yes, Shakespeare deals with the universal themes of human nature in his plays.  These themes are still relevant today.  They may not have had as much freedom as we do in modern America, but they still had to deal with make enough money to feed their families, paying taxes, death, religion, love, and injustice.

Does this play highlight any of those similarities?

I think that finding guidance through religion is still a relevant truth in modern society.  Dissatisfaction with authority is also something that I think is a universal theme.  The difference is that in America we can voice our dissatisfaction.  If you spoke out in decent of the Queen or King in Shakespeare’s time, the consequences could be as severe as death.

What are some of the challenges of playing a role in a Shakespearean play?

Really trying to comprehend everything that is in the text and making it clear to a modern audience.

Why do you perform Shakespeare?

I love the soaring imagery in his work.  No one else can bend and manipulate the English language to his will the way that Shakespeare can.  His work can evoke so many huge emotions that are just so wonderful to play.   I think that his words can show us the truth within ourselves and make us realize our power as human beings.

What is your favorite play by Shakespeare? 

Probably Henry V.  I love the sweeping scope of it.  It deals with so many things; war, death, humanity, cowardice, love.  Plus it has some of the best speeches in Shakespeare.

Why should audiences come to see Measure for Measure?

It’s a dark comedy that will leave you laughing and thinking about what you truly believe is right and just in this world.

Part of the Shakespeare Evolution Series, Measure for Measure plays in repertory with Alls Well That Ends Well through September 30. For tickets and more information, please visit The New American Shakespeare Tavern’s website.