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Chiang takes measure of Shakespeare's darkest comedy

Angelo (Bradford Farwell) and Isabella (Cindy Im)
John Ullman
The director of Seattle Shakespeare’s current production of "Measure for Measure." has had a lifetime relationship with the Bard. It began with her mother being "a horrible test taker," said Desdemona Chiang. After finishing in the bottom 5 percent of a national test to determine college placement, the Taiwanese government placed Chiang's mother "in theater school. She spent four years doing theater against her will – because she really wanted to be a journalist." However an encounter with Shakespeare’s "Othello," and a liking for the character of Othello's wife, led her to name her daughter Desdemona.

“So I’ve always being fascinated by Shakespeare because of my name. I first tried to read ‘Othello’ when I was 9,” Chiang recalled.

Although born in Taiwan, Chiang grew up in the United States and her own college career went a bit differently. “I remember calling my mother and telling her that I decided to major in theater,” Chiang said. “Her response was ‘Why, why do you want to be in the bottom 5 percent? You’ll never eat!’”
After earning an MFA at the University of Washington and establishing a busy career in Seattle as a freelance director, Chiang said that these days her mother realizes that a theater career “doesn’t mean that I’m living in some basement somewhere.”

Chiang’s own fascination with Shakespeare has never waned. In particular, she’s long wanted to do his darkest comedy, “Measure for Measure.”

George Mount, Seattle Shakespeare’s artistic director, and Chiang had been mulling over “Measure for Measure” but a time slot had to open in the company’s indoor season. “George is always very good about letting me steer the ship. We agreed that it wouldn’t be in the park [as part of the company’s outdoor season]. You can’t have people hear a guy asking a nun to have sex when they’re walking by with their kids and dogs.”

This play’s very adult issues and problems drew Chiang to it. “For me, it has always felt like a social justice play. ‘Measure for Measure’ is about the underbelly and poverty that is not funny. Poverty that is a problem,” she said. “Also, all the action takes place in a civic setting – the courthouse, the street, the steps of the church. Nothing is in a home. There’s no father and child like so many of Shakespeare’s plays.”

Instead, the one familial relationship is the nun Isabella and her brother Claudio. He asks his sister to break her vows with righteous Angelo, a reformer bent on enforcing the city’s moral laws while slipping into the quagmire himself. “So here’s this play that’s all very family free, domestic free, except Isabella and Claudio and their relationship is kind of distorted – just go sleep with this guy to save my life, ” said Chiang. “So this play feels like South Africa, Calcutta, or the poorest part of Iowa. Anywhere were a woman has to sell herself to feed herself or save her family. It’s about both the world’s oldest profession and the government trying to legislate what women can do with their bodies.”

The plot hinges on the actions of the Duke, a character that Chiang called “also at the mercy of the larger ecosystem. His plan [to clean up the city by putting Angelo in charge] goes to hell, and so he’s improvising too, like everyone else. So much of this play is about survival.”

At the same time, there’s no easy answer to the question of how to deal with corruption. While citizens of Vienna struggle with the strict interpretation of the rules that Angelo tries to enforce to clean up the city, “it was important to me to not demonize the Church,” said Chiang. “Isabella and even Angelo are trying to do right.”

For Chiang, looking at Christine Tschirgi’s costumes that referenced multiple cultures helped set the tone of this “Measure for Measure.’

“I have a hard time with those productions where somebody goes ‘let’s put it in 1970s Texas’ as a gimmick. I find it problematic when the play is not about the themes of that place,” she said. “Our world [in “Measure for Measure”] came together when Christine created the costumes. She presses a lot on the hard questions. Why this shape and not that shape? What do we mean when we say nun or hooker? There was one moment when she showed me her sketches and the entire play clicked in. This was our Vienna.”