Oskar Eustis’s Trumpian Julius Caesar of recent controversy is over but its melody lingers on in Measure for Measure, yet another modern-dress, politically-themed, Shakespearean revival. Unlike Eustis, Simon Godwin, an associate director of England’s National Theatre, doing his first Shakespeare with an American company, doesn’t make the characters immediately recognizable as current Washington figures. In the wake of Julius Caesar, however, it’s impossible not to be distracted by contemplating the potential analogies, even when they lead nowhere in particular. Thus one may be excused for wondering, "Is this a Richard Nixon I see before me?" when Thomas Jay Ryan's Angelo makes his entrance.
|Thomas Jay Ryan. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.|
As Jonathan Kalb, dramaturg for this Theatre for a New Audience production at Brooklyn’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center, explains in the program, Shakespeare’s dark comedy has a striking timelessness, which he lays out in a series of bullet-points. These include (I’m paraphrasing), among others, a male political leader with a record of sexual harassment who impugns slanderous motives to his critics; who publicly smears women who accuse him of misconduct; and who employs religion to control immoral social behavior by enforcing puritanical laws. In addition, another mendacious leader speciously justifies his secretly spying on his citizens.
Borrowing a page from the “immersive theatre” playbook, Godwin seeks to plunge his audience into a Vienna seething with corruption by having them (if they choose to do so) enter the theatre proper by walking through a murkily-lit backstage hallway designed to suggest Mistress Overdone’s brothel. You almost immediately brush past the madam herself (you’ll realize this later), dreamily filing her nails, and then pass several spaces showing actors in sexually provocative costumes, like flesh and blood versions of Mme. Tussaud’s wax exhibits, while an assortment of neon-lit sex toys adorn the walls. Finally, you emerge into the theatre proper, where properly dressed ushers help you to your seat. It’s all so faux and gimmicky that it’s impossible for the brothel’s owner's name not to come to mind.
When the lights go up on the play, the balloon-festooned, parquet-floored, thrust stage becomes the site of a rock music-backed orgy with dancing participants (music by Jane Shaw; choreography by Brian Brooks) reminiscent of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. And smack dab in the middle is Measure for Measure’s central character, Duke Vincentio (Jonathan Cake), so dope and drink addled he falls asleep on the floor enveloped in the draperies.
|Jonathan Cake. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.|
He’s found the next morning by his advisor, Escala. The latter is Shakespeare’s wise, old Escalus, changed to an attractive, business-suited woman so she can be acted by the talented January Lavoy (who also plays Mistress Overdone--as a flashy tart with a heavy Latina accent--and a nun). As the Duke straightens his disheveled appearance, he begins his opening monologue, its gnarly language in no need of such distractions.
The notion of making the Duke, generally portrayed as a wise, decent ruler, into a relatively youthful debauchee seems motivated in part by his later description (“He would be drunk, too”) by the sardonic, ever-jesting Lucio (Haynes Thigpen), played here as a velvet-jacketed, coke-sniffing pimp.
Just as the orgiastic Vienna disappears as the play gets on to its principal business, so does the duke’s depravity, when he forsakes his presumed physical addiction in favor of his plot-driving decision: to turn over his power to his deputy, Angelo, while pretending that he’s leaving town. In reality, the duke, for motives that remain cloudy, is going undercover in a friar’s cowl and robes so he can observe both his citizens’ behavior and that of Angelo.
|Jonathan Cake, Haynes Thigpen. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.|
The aforementioned Lucio is the good friend of Claudio (Leland Fowler), a young man who’s arrested for having impregnated Juliet (Sam Morales), a minor infraction since the couple was planning on getting married anyway. But the newly empowered Angelo is so mercilessly draconian that, insisting on the application of an old law, he decrees death for Claudio. Claudio’s pious sister, Isabella (Cara Ricketts), on the brink of taking her vows as a nun, is thus inspired to intervene and beg Angelo for mercy.
From this follows the central conflict when the morally circumspect Angelo is so aroused by Isabella’s presence that he succumbs to lust, agreeing to free Isabella’s brother only if she’ll sleep with him. The pious Isabella, however, would sooner lose her brother than her maidenhead, thereby creating a huge moral dilemma.
Multiple deceptive situations are created at the Duke’s contrivance so that everything can eventually be resolved in typically romantic fashion when the Duke finally steps in, reveals his identity, and sets things right, even taking Isabella for himself.
|Oberon K.A. Adjepong. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.|
As the frequent laughter suggests, Godwin’s overall interpretation leans toward the comic although the play can just as well be done more bleakly. Lucio, who first appears pouring baby powder down his underpants as if he's soothing a painful crotch, is the chief comic character, although it’s hard to make him funny
The more clownish characters succeed better at this, like the language-mangling constable Elbow and the prisoner Barnardine, both given distinctively broad characterizations by Zachary Fine; he plays the first with self-important military gestures and the latter as a fully bearded, longhaired, Russian drunk.
The best-played comic scene involves two other clowns, Pompey (Christopher Michael McFarland), a tapster employed by Mistress Overdone, and Froth (Kenneth De Abrew), arrested by the police chief-like Provost (Oberon K.A. Adjepong). Their hearing is conducted by Escala, whom Lavoy portrays with Jeanine Pirro attitude.
|Zachary Fine. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.|
|Thomas Jay Ryan, January Lavoy. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.|
|Zachary Fine, Christopher Michael McFarland. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.|
The production, running around two hours and 40 minutes, is swiftly paced and vigorously, if not subtly, performed. Played on an open set designed by Paul Wills, superbly lit by Matthew Richards, with much use of mobile prison cages that come in through large, metal, upstage doors, it’s filled with the kind of novel touches we expect in such modern-dress (excellent costumes, also by Wills) affairs. For example, Mariana (Merritt Jansen), the woman Angelo abandoned when her dowry was lost in a shipwreck, opens the play's second half as a rock singer in a cabaret, with actual audience members seated at cocktail tables. Some spectators also get to wave flags for the Duke’s grand entrance.
|Merritt Janson, Cara Ricketts. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.|
Too much of the dialogue, though, is delivered in rapid, full-throated, rhetorical style; it's a common problem in Shakespeare, where actors tend to shout at rather than talk with one another. British actor Jonathan Cake, a handsome leading man, plays the Duke as a light romantic lead, having fun with his conniving, and downplaying the more dignified manner often associated with the role.
|Jonathan Cake, Leland Fowler. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.|
Thomas Jay Ryan, always interesting, captures Angelo’s icy officiousness and hypocritical self-righteousness (his habit of cleaning his hands with Purell is a smart touch) but fails to believably express the man’s struggle to overcome his concupiscent cravings. When he suddenly grabs Isabella it comes off more as the result of a stage direction than a stiff erection.
|Thomas Jay Ryan, Cara Ricketts. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.|
While, overall, it's a more unified production than Julius Caesar, Godwin's Measure for Measure comes, unfortunately, at a moment when it can't help being trumped by a production that received remarkable attention even though many wouldn’t give two pence for it.
Theatre for a New Audience/Polonsky Shakespeare Center
Through July 16