American Players Theatre
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Spring Green, WI 53588
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The Quick Chat series is where we dive into the life and times of APT's finest. This week features part one of our two-part character interviews with Core Company Actor Melisa Pereyra – this week she discusses playing Isabella in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.
Name: Melisa Pereyra
Positon: Core Company Actor
Seasons at APT: 6
APT: Can you speak a bit to playing Isabella in a more contemporary production of the play? How do you feel it would differ from playing her in period setting?
Melisa Pereyra: I have felt a huge amount of freedom playing Isabella in a contemporary western world. I have been able to give her agency. Whereas in Elizabethan times, Isabella might have entered the convent because she had no other safe space to exist in a corrupt society, the way I have approached her entrance into the convent is a choice. She chooses to go there because she wants to not only be away from the lechery of potentially harming men, but also because she feels like the word of God can serve as a tool to change the world around her. As an artist, I try to use art to change the world. As an activist, I educate myself, march, sign petitions, call my representatives; I wanted her to have a bit of a fight in her. Not invincible, by any means, but the weapon she uses in this play is her religion. Her understanding of the patriarchal structure which she’s a part of requires a keen sense maturity and conviction; I don’t know how other womxn have played her before, but every time we do a play, we interpret it. This play was contemporary to Shakespeare’s audiences, and as we re-interpret it today, it is contemporary to us. Separating it from our own context can make us look at the history of the world with a revisionist mentality. Putting the play in a contemporary setting tells my interpretation of Isabella that this is now, and that my understanding of the world matters. I am not trying to reach back into the past and make something come to life, but rather, I get to look at the world as it is today and comment on it. Perhaps to ask ourselves, how much have we truly changed?
In addition, while being at the height of the me too movement, I feel like more people can identify with Isabella’s need to choose when she will give up her virginity vs giving it up because a man in power has felt entitled to ask for it. The ownership of her own body and choices resonate in a much more visceral way because the conversation about consent is finally at the forefront of our minds. Not that long ago, people would watch this play and say, “Why doesn’t she just say yes to giving up her virginity and save her brother?” If this is a question you are still asking, then perhaps one needs to look deeper as to why she should HAVE to do that.
Those are only a FEW of the things that I can point to that have shaped the way I approached playing her in a contemporary production of the play that would have been ignored if we hid behind the lens of time.
APT: What are your favorite things about Isabella as a character, and about playing that character?
MP: Her goodness, her strict value system, her ability to argue like a Harvard Law graduate, her tenacity and passion to punish those who have hurt her and yet her ability to forgive.
APT: What do you see as her flaws (if anything)?
MP: Isabella is incredibly flawed. She wants to help her brother but also judges him for what he has done. She believes firmly in what her God teaches her, yet does things that go against her better judgement once the seed of revenge is planted in her brain. She lies in front of a crowd and says that she gave up her body to Angelo in order to save her brother, but in reality she let Mariana go in her stead. She loses track of who she is and her value system begins to shake once she decides to go along with the Duke’s plans. This is what makes her so human – that she is so sure of something one minute and on the other side the next. In one of her earlier scenes with Angelo she says:
There is a vice that most I do abhor,
and most desire should meet the blow of justice;
For which I would not plead, but that I must;
For which I must not plead but that I am
At war ‘twixt will and will not.
I can relate to what she’s talking about here and I think we all can. Figuring out the right thing to do in moments of heightened stress is a difficult thing to process and that’s such an interesting place to start this character’s inner struggle.
APT: What was the most challenging thing about playing this role?
MP: Forgiveness. How does Isabella forgive Angelo? Why does she forgive the Duke? or DOES she? All of those questions were ever present as I built her psychological and emotional journey. What does forgiveness mean, anyway? Do we forgive others because we want to show mercy? Or do we do it because forgiveness means we can release ourselves from those that hurt us? Maybe it’s a little bit of both. Isabella goes on a journey of trying to figure out what the right thing to do is, and at every step her boundaries are pushed and the “right” thing becomes harder and harder to identify. I don’t know if forgiving Angelo or the Duke are the “right” things to do, but perhaps it’s what she does to release herself from all the pain they have caused her. Perhaps it’s her way of throwing in the towel. Perhaps saving Angelo’s life will mean that he will have more time to live and contemplate what he has done to the womxn around him. Perhaps she doesn’t say ‘no’ to the Duke’s business agreement because she knows he has got much more to learn from her. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. These are things that I tossed into my character-making recipe, and what the observer gets out of it all is completely controlled by their own psyche and life experience.
APT: How do you think Isabella’s relationship to the convent and her wishes to be a nun changed over the course of the story?
MP: Her faith waivers. In her second scene with Angelo she says that if begging for the Duke’s life is a sin, “Heaven let me bear it.” We no longer hear the person who said, “I am at war twixt will and will not” (her first moment of momentary moral relapse). We hear an Isabella who has decided that pleading for her brother’s life must be an ordinance from God. That this is a trial she must live through. She says, “That I do beg his life, if it be sin/ Heaven let me bear it.” Then she contradicts herself later. She is the most honest that we ever see her in this scene with Angelo (ACT II, SCENE 4). She contradicts herself when she says, “I something DO excuse the thing I hate/ For his advantage that I dearly love.” I think this mild confession here is the second step she takes out of her faith. She admits her own hypocrisy. And in this moment, when her faith seems to waiver before the eyes of Angelo, he sees her vulnerable and fully flawed. She admits in front of him what he only speaks about in his soliloquies. It is this transparency that makes Angelo want her more, “Dost though desire her foully for those things that make her good?” She can be pious and yet admit her weaknesses, but most importantly that she speaks into that. This gives him an in. He takes this window of opportunity to finally say to her out loud, “Plainly conceive, I love you.”
After Isabella is assaulted by Angelo in this scene, she begins to spin. Clinging onto her faith with all limbs, and being floored when her only brother asks her to go ahead and give up her virginity to save his life. It is at this third vulnerable moment that she meets the Duke dressed as the friar. Ashamed of the harsh words she has shared with her brother, she reluctantly agrees to listen to his plan. When she sees the Duke in Act 4 (after the bed-trick has happened) and he tells her that even after all the sketchy scheming they have done to save her brother’s life and get back at Angelo, her brother’s execution still took place. This is where I have tracked her faith going away. In her mind, I have her asking the age old question, if God exists, why would they let these awful things happen? Has not her faith been tested enough?
This is all to say, that yes. Her perspective and questioning of her own beliefs take a big journey as the play unfolds. I am left wondering, can she influence more people outside the convent? What weapons will she use in the next battle she is called to fight?
APT: What do you think about the proposal from the Duke (and do you think she accepted? You don’t have to answer that.)
MP: It is all up for interpretation, but what is important to note is that Shakespeare doesn’t give her an answer. This was radical at the time. Isabella was expected to accept. This is a Duke, after all – the power dynamics in the play don’t change enough to show us that she has the agency to say ‘no’ to such a proposal. So Shakespeare makes her go silent. A womxn who has spoken so clearly and expressively throughout the play, after she forgives her abuser, falls silent. I wonder why. Still. Is she afraid to say no? What happened last time she said no to a man? This fear is real for so many womxn, and because I am aware of that, her silence speaks volumes to me. I look forward to seeing what people make of the way we have chosen to end the play.
APT: Anything you’d like to add about your feelings about the play, your role or the other characters?
MP: We have a Latinx family at the center of the narrative: Isabella, Claudio and Juliet are all being played by Latinx artists. The way our director chose to use the law in our play made a huge impact for us. This was not easy, but it made us look at Law Enforcement today. It made us show our audiences that police brutality and family separation affect our community in a real way. TODAY. #keepfamiliestogether
This wasn’t us putting something on the play, but rather allowing the artists on the stage to bring their whole selves to the narrative. Not ignoring that we are actors of color telling these stories. It made the cast have to talk about these things in a real way. When politics and political views begin to play a key role in the rehearsal room, we have the opportunity to have a more thorough conversation that includes more voices. The text remains the same, but the way in which each word is seen changes depending on how we walk through the world. This is important. It is the reason I do theatre. The way other people have read the text in the past is never “right” or “wrong”. There is not just ONE way of looking at a piece of poetry. However, if most conversations only exist in a vacuum, people begin to think that one point of view is more valid than the other. The loudest or most common point of view on ANY issue is never the only one. I like being in rooms full of actors of color who make me question and learn from my own views as well.