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THE UPS AND DOWNS OF
MEASURE FOR MEASURE
Elevator Repair Service in "Measure for Measure" at the Public. Photo by Richard Termine.
“Measure for Measure” by William Shakespeare.
Produced by Elevator Repair Service and directed by John Collins
Public Theatre, 425 Lafayette St., NYC.
Sept. 17—Nov. 12, 2017.
Tuesday through Saturday at 7:00 p.m
Saturdays and Sundays at 1:00 p.m. Schedule may vary.
The Elevator Repair Service (ERS) under the helm of John Collins has garnered a die-hard following, won a Lucille Lortel and several Obie awards, and produced extended runs, especially their adaptations of classical American novels: “Gatz,” adapted from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” and “The Sound and the Fury” from the William Faulkner novel. Their current production at the Public Theatre of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” is brilliantly innovative and clever. But it helps to know the play. The production is a gloss on the script.
Finding good directors for “Measure for Measure” has never been easy. It’s a difficult play. A curious comedy. Everything is pushed to excess – virtue becomes prudery, rectitude masks narcissism and lechery, the ends justify the means, drunkenness is salvation, and slackness proves more trustworthy than the letter of the law. The play may end -- like any classic comedy -- with multiple wedding announcements, but its theme is a dystopia -- ruled first by a lackadaisical duke, then by a hypocrite. Most of the characters aren’t even likeable, but it’s my favorite Shakespeare. I love the mystery of the characters, of Isabel, the nun, Mariana, the jilted fiancée, the sneaky duke, the hypocritical Angelo, the lying Lucius, the bumbling constable Elbow, and the faithful, pregnant, jailed lovers. Always the lovers -- who are for Shakespeare the moral compass of the universe.
I think director John Collins enjoys the play as much as I do because he has created a riotous, ludicrous, exaggerated, and wildly inventive production. ERS has found the comedy in even the dourest exchanges, found it through character and their stage reactions, in juxtapositions, and stylized moments that take it over the top and then some. This is a play that probably made Shakespeare chuckle as he wrote, especially the several absurdist deus ex machina at the close. The two hours flew by.
The story line is the education of a prince. The city is drowning in moral corruption. The duke (Scott Shepherd) has been indulgent. So he devices a plan: he will appoint the uptight Angelo (Pete Simpson) to right things while he disappears underground to take the pulse of his people as a disguised monk. Like any new hire, Angelo strives to impress so he enforces the law against fornication by issuing an edict against brothels, jailing a very pregnant Juliet (Lindsay Hockaday) and sentencing her fiancé, the nobleman Claudio (Greig Sargeant), to decapitation. Meanwhile the brothels are relocating to friendlier neighborhoods and Elbow (Susie Sokol), the constable, a bumbling malaprop, can’t even protect the honor of his constipated wife. When Isabella (Rinne Groff), a novitiate, comes to beg for her brother’s life, Angelo becomes obsessed with having her. He lies, promising her Claudio’s life in exchange for her virginity. She refuses, but the monk has a plan.
All of the duke’s schemes seem to misfire. He is a right-minded Big Brother who spies on his own people (and is sometimes maligned by them). Today he would use wire taps, informants, and hidden camera. He borrows the power of the church to enforce his convoluted corrections. At the close, he dictates terms that seem to please no one, but he is the hero because he saves the lovers, champions insulted women, and re-establishes justice, measure for measure. And in the capable guise of Scott Shepherd, he is highly amiable and appealing.
The unique quality of the production announces itself immediately. The play opens at some sort of control center, maybe a boardroom, where the seated characters speak to each other through candlestick phones. They wear contemporary and vintage outfits. The pace varies. If there are many lines or long speeches, the actors rush through them. The words are projected on the backdrops and flats (Eva von Schweinitz and a Magic Grant from the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation of innovative tools). But when the scene becomes dramatic or the speeches are important to understand the characters, the actor presses an invisible button on the table – like the Staples Easy Button – and delivery is slowed. The line readings and emotions are very accessible. (Perhaps Collins was inspired also by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who observed that watching Edmund Kean perform Shakespeare was like reading the play through flashes of lightning – not unlike this production.)
The metadrama itself is comical. Gestures, facial expressions, interactions are exaggerated or played true to contemporary life. Angelo gets notably annoyed at several points – and suddenly he is – like us. This, you might imagine, is what Shakespeare meant, not the more polished delivery, but raw emotion. Playing with historical references, Collins adds absurdity to bland lines. One character says he will call on someone and he exits with the unplugged landline. In the final revelations, the cast falls to the ground with amazement – twice! And it is amazing that the lowly friar is now a duke, that Angelo slept with his fiancée, not Isabella, that Claudio lives despite a severed head presented as his, and so forth. Absurdity rules!
The low comedy is par for the course. It’s hard to figure out how to do it, so ERS spoofs the characters and situations, sometimes with cross-dressing (Lindsay Hockaday as the smooth-tongued Pompey, a male pimp), sometimes with tongue-in-cheek delivery, sometimes with weird costumes or hairstyles.
There are problems with the production. The lovers and Isabella are probably in their 20s or younger while the actors are not. Instead of a habit, Isabella wears an unappealing vintage outfit. The final scene lacks the usual gravitas that tugs at the heart, especially when Mariana (April Matthis) and Isabella kneel to save Angelo. And Lucio’s (Mike Iveson) dismay at being married to his baby mother is underplayed. But this production has golden moments of invention, a comic madness that is rare and wonderful, especially in service of a neglected masterpiece.
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