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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Isabella?

Date: Jul 05, 2017

A Canadian stage star takes on the Measure for Measure heroine


Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing series on actors and how they create their roles

Call Measure for Measure one of Shakespeare's "problem plays" and you can practically hear Cara Ricketts wince. A regular at Ontario's celebrated Stratford Festival, the actress is well-known for her classical theatre work in her native Canada, but her moving turn as novice nun Isabella in Theatre for a New Audience's spirited mounting of the Bard's morally complex comedy marks her auspicious New York City stage debut. And she's embracing the experience, "problems" and all.

"The original 'problem play' definition by F.S. Boas was about a character dealing with a world where there are social and moral problems," Ricketts says. "That term has been bastardized to mean any play we can't quite figure out. People will come and say, 'I heard it was a problem play so it doesn't make sense,' but that's a detriment to the artists. The question isn't how do we solve a play that doesn't make sense, but how do we address social issues that we can't solve?" Indeed, even four centuries later, Measure for Measure contains many elements that speak to contemporary concerns, such as a leader who abuses his power both personally and politically, and a polarized society. "That's magical to me that someone who's been dead for years can still shake the system," Ricketts adds.

That said, Ricketts admits she can't wrap her head around all of the action in Measure for Measure. Characters' motivations and fortunes change so suddenly and drastically, the play risks inducing whiplash, not just in the audience but the actors, too. "There were times in rehearsal when Simon [Godwin, the director] was trying to break down a scene, and there were so many things taking place the only way I could be helpful was to know where I was going with my crazy choices," Ricketts admits. "It's a wild play -- even when I watched the film, it was hard to grasp the story."


Godwin has worked hard to give the production tonal consistency by emphasizing the comedy and licentiousness. Audiences are encouraged to enter through a mock brothel; visual gags include sex toys and an insanely long string of colorful condoms; and Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna (Jonathan Cake), shoots heroin before ceding control of his domain to Angelo (Thomas Jay Ryan), a rigid judge, in the hope of cleaning up the city. However, the ethical debates between Isabella and Angelo -- who condemns her brother Claudio (Leland Fowler) to death for impregnating his girlfriend out of wedlock -- aren't played for laughs. They're intellectually and emotionally intense, especially when Angelo offers Isabella an impossible choice: her virginity in exchange for her sibling's life.

With such high stakes and no obvious budding romances, it may seem strange that the show ends, as all Shakespeare comedies do, with multiple weddings. And Ricketts says there are performances when some viewers share their misgivings. "One night in Act V when I decide to marry the Duke, this poor guy in the audience looked right at me and shook his head. And another time a woman said, 'Don't do it!'" Ricketts recalls. "The crazy thing about it is that's still an empowering moment. After his freewheeling life, the Duke has met someone he will tie himself down to. Ultimately the marriage is beyond the two of them. It becomes a marriage of the yin and the yang, a marriage of justice and mercy."

Ricketts, who recently married composer and sound designer Justin Ellington and is now based in NYC, plans to continue essaying classical roles stateside, though she swears she doesn't have any particular ones in mind. "Where I trained, they didn't have much hope for us getting classical work," she says. "They said, 'Just make your own stuff,' and I still have a bit of that in me when I come to a role. How do I create this person brand-new?" As Isabella, she makes this 400-plus-year-old Shakespearean heroine feel fresh.


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Top image: Thomas Jay Ryan and Cara Ricketts. Photos by Gerry Goodstein

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