It is a curious fact that William Shakespeare’s birth and death are both celebrated on the same day: April 23rd.
The coincidental timeline adds just a dash of mysticism to an already bewildering master poet, one whose cup runneth over with gifts of verse, meaning, and human insight.
This year, Jack Shalom, co-host of Arts Express, decided he would celebrate the Bard’s wondrous birthday with a radio production of Measure for Measure, a comedy Shalom refers to as “Shakespeare’s MeToo play.”
The idea found him during the depths of a Covid-saturated November, when he and his actor pals were feeling restless.
“My friends and I were just dying to do some theater and the winter is so gloomy,” said Shalom. “We said, well, we’re going to do this one way or another, we’re going to do some Shakespeare for radio.”
Shalom says he loves producing Shakespeare for radio because it invites the audience to use their imagination. Another plus is it doesn’t require a whole lot of money. “You don’t have to worry about the costume budget,” he said.
So, Shalom sent out a bunch of emails to see who might be interested.
Every single person said yes.
“We had 14 actors in 5 states in 7 cities,” he said. “And we got them all together on Zoom.”
Actors who were overbooked with voice over work or theater productions found the time to make it happen.
“They were just so eager to do it,” Shalom recalled. “And they just made room in their schedules for it. They said, ‘no, no, I’m really busy. I can’t do Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday-but I’m gonna find some time for you, Jack. I really want to do this.’ Because it’s so fascinating, and it’s interesting.”
The play, Measure for Measure, although not as well-known as other epic plots like Hamlet or Macbeth, has a chilling premise.
Taking place in Vienna, the story follows Isabella, a young woman on the brink of entering the sisterhood. Before she takes her vows, Isabella learns her brother has been condemned to death-for the atrocious act of consensual fornication (outside of wedlock). The arrest, tragically, only happened due to new enthusiasm to enforce a law that no one heeded. Wracked with distress, Isabella confronts Angelo, the city’s acting authority, about her brother’s fate. In fact, she pleads with Angelo so passionately that Angelo is moved to pardon her brother on one condition, that she go to bed with him.
Isabella is left to fight her way through a trap of moral terror. When the dust settles, the question then becomes, will Angelo be held accountable for his hypocrisy and abuse of power?
“The title, Measure for Measure? Well, it’s kind of biblical,” said Shalom. “An eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. Okay, okay. What is justice? How do you give justice out in this world? Do you do an eye for an eye? But if you did that, as Gandhi once said, ‘An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind’. So Shakespeare understands that this always has to be tempered with mercy. But how far do you go with mercy?”
With sincerity and intensity, Shalom’s players grapple with the play’s questions of justice, mercy, and agency, right up to the last moment. Shalom told Mary Murphy, the actress who plays Isabella, that she would be the one to decide how the play ends. Because she was the one who lived through it.
He said, “You do whatever you feel. If you want to cry, cry. If you want to laugh, laugh. If you want to stay silent, stay silent.” And that’s what she did. Shalom wouldn’t share what happened, but he said he was surprised. And he was certain her response was absolutely right for their production.
Measure for Measure has been adapted for radio by Jack Shalom and is available on the podcast version of the show he helps produce, Arts Express. Arts Express is hosted by Prairie Miller and broadcasts Saturdays on WBAI in New York. The podcast can be found on the Apple, Google, and YouTube platforms as well as the Arts Express podcast page.