“We don’t find shoemakers that funny these days,” playwright Aditi Kapil says. “Or syphilis. We don’t find syphilis nearly as hilarious as they did in Shakespeare’s days.”
In writing her modern verse “translation” of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” Kapil was faithful to Shakespeare’s intentions. But she removed a few of the syphilis jokes.
“If I had left it, I think people might have thought we ramped up the syphilis jokes,” she says by phone from Los Angeles.
The NOLA Project opens its season with the show on Tuesday in the Great Hall at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA).
Moctar comes from a conservative Islamic family that forbade playing music, so he practiced in secret.
“Measure for Measure” often is considered a comedy. The Duke of Vienna announces he’s going out of town and appoints Angelo to rule during his absence. The Duke then disguises himself as a friar and stays in the city to see what happens. When Claudio winds up in prison, sentenced to die, he implores his sister Isabel, a nun, to beg Angelo for mercy. Angelo proposes that Isabel sleep with him as the price of his leniency.
“The comedy is really fun,” director Mark Routhier says. “But the things Angelo says use the language someone like (billionaire sex offender) Jeffrey Epstein used. Nothing has changed in 400 years.”
The drama also includes Pompey Bum, a pimp who is in and out of prison and willing to trade favors. At times he breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience, and since he’s talking to a contemporary audience, Kapil used contemporary terminology in those lines. Pompey says the audience can laugh at the bad behavior in front of them but that there are sinners in their midst as well. Kapil includes some professions more common and amusing than shoemakers.
Kapil writes for stage and TV. She’s currently working on “Away,” an upcoming Netflix series starring Hilary Swank about a space mission to Mars and on season three of the Amazon political action thriller “Jack Ryan.” She also has had her plays produced at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The festival spun off Play On Shakespeare, which has commissioned modern verse versions of 36 Shakespeare plays. Kapil teamed with a dramaturge to do “Measure for Measure.”
The show shines as a vibrant installation in which the two artists’ works exist in a colorful dialogue about the meaning of being black in America as seen in the lives of iconic figures who helped define their times.
To create the modern versions, writing teams were given leeway in how they translated the works but were not supposed to change character names or drastically cut the scripts. Kapil chose to write in iambic pentameter, and for the NOLA Project, Michael Bartelle’s Duke at times toys with the rhyme scheme for comedic effect. If Shakespeare gave a character a long speech, Kapil kept its length.
“There’s a point to saying it in ornate verse,” Kapil says. “The Duke is an ornamental speaker — he’s pompous, he talks to himself. That makes the Duke who he is as a character.”
She also did not change the conflicts or Shakespeare’s underlying framework.
“You listen to scenes between Isabel and Angelo, and they are really intellectually matched,” Kapil says. “It’s rigorous and fascinating. They are debating religion and morality. They’re going at each other as really smart debaters, and there’s something intellectually satisfying and sexy about that.”
But the power dynamic is unchanged.
“Angelo says, ‘Who’s going to believe you?’” Kapil notes.
Isabel remains torn between her brother and her resistance to Angelo.
Kapil’s text hasn’t changed Shakespeare’s outcome, but she stuck to a playwright’s concern.
“The only sin is boring your audience,” Kapil says.
"Measure for Measure"
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 10-29
New Orleans Museum of Art, 1 Collins C. Diboll Circle, (504) 658-4100; www.nolaproject.com