Off-Broadway Theater Review: MEASURE FOR MEASURE (Elevator Repair Service/The Public Theater)

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by Dmitry Zvonkov on October 10, 2017

in Theater-New York


More often than not, stagings of Shakespeare plays turn into dull, tedious exercises. The reasons for this vary but the one problem that always seems present is the lack of an artistically significant personal and urgent connection between material and interpreter. To put it another way, one often gets the sense of productions being beholden to the text, as though it were some ancient stone deity before them, with director and actors desperately trying to understand what it wants them to do.

Elevator Repair Service, under the helmsmanship of John Collins, takes a different approach with Measure for Measure, making text subservient to action, and Shakespeare’s vision subservient to theirs. They imagine this so-called “problem play” as an irreverent screwball comedy, complete with rapid-fire dialogue and exaggerated emotional and physical transitions; the show’s newsroom atmosphere, candlestick phones and mid-century outfits bring The Front Page to mind. The result is a remarkable piece of theater, and the most immediate, dynamic and modern staging of a Shakespeare play I have seen.

The Duke of Vienna (Scott Shepherd) puts underling Angelo (Pete Simpson) in charge and pretends to leave the city—in fact he disguises himself as a friar and hangs around to see what will happen. Angelo, a strict, by-the-book moralist, decides to put an end to what he sees as the people’s wanton sexual behavior by tearing down brothels and setting up the execution of Claudio (Greig Sargeant) for impregnating Julietta (Lindsay Hockaday), his wife in all but the most technical sense; she loves him and wants his baby. Angelo’s position is that legally they are not married. Therefore, Claudio is guilty of fornication and must be beheaded on principle, as an example. Only when Claudio’s chaste nun-to-be sister Isabella (Rinne Groff) begs Angelo for clemency does he agree to spare her brother’s life—but only in exchange for her virginity.

For those who want to know the precise plot, take in all the clever dialogue, experience the nuances of Shakespeare’s language, I suggest reading the play before coming to see this production at The Public Theater. In the first fifteen minutes the actors speak so quickly that one can hardly understand a thing that is said. This pace, though not sustained, is returned to time and again, with significant blocks of text uttered at breakneck speeds throughout the show.

The words are also projected onto the walls of Jim Findlay’s elegant set, which at first seems like it might be, at least in part, to assist those viewers desperate to understand everything that is being said. But the set walls consist of separated panels in the foreground, with solid planes behind them. And when Eva Von Schweinitz’s rolling projections fall onto these layered surfaces they are fragmented, making them impossible to read from beginning to end. In fact trying to do so brings more distraction than clarity, which seems intentional.

In many ways the show is a dramatic dance in which rhythm and timing and the interconnectedness of gestures and utterances usurp the power of the text. ERS repurposes many of Shakespeare’s words as graphics and sounds—elusive and transient pockets of meaning that can’t ever be fully grasped. In so doing the production illuminates the play’s essence much more than, say, a literal staging. It also resolves at least one of the “problematic” aspects of the play, not by solving the enigma but by deepening it.

The excellent cast also includes Vin Knight, Mike Iveson, Maggie Hoffman, Gavin Price, Susie Sokol, and April Matthis.

photos by Richard Termine

Measure for Measure
Elevator Repair Service
The Public Theater
LuEster Hall, 425 Lafayette Street (at Astor Place)
ends on November 12, 2017
for tickets, call 212. 967.7555 or visit Public Theater

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