Thursday, October 12, 2017

84 (2017-2018): Review: MEASURE FOR MEASURE (seen October 11, 2017)

"When Shakespeare Met Weinstein" 

If theatre is most relevant when it dramatizes issues currently on the public’s mind, there could be no better time than now for a revival of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, when the media is screaming about the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal.

The experimental theatre troupe Elevator Repair Service, renowned for its illumination of American literary classics (Gatz, The Sound and the Fury), couldn’t have had this particular cause célèbre on its mind when it chose the play—similar, if less publicized, scandals rock the headlines every week—but it definitely gives this otherwise bizarre interpretation, directed by John Collins, a cachet of significance.
Pete Simpson, Rinne Groff. Photo: Richard Termine.
Measure for Measure, of course, is a “problem play” whose mixed comic and tragic tone and confounding thoughts on justice and mercy have bedeviled bardolators, actors, and directors for centuries. But they keep trying. A relatively traditional, albeit modern dress, revival was staged in June by Theatre for a New Audience, to modest effect, while a musical adaptation, Desperate Measures, at the York Theatre, is essentially a new work using only the original’s central premise for its richly appealing retelling.
Maggie Hoffman, Greig Sargeant. Photo: Richard Termine.
The play’s connection to Weinstein et al. is its premise about an overbearingly moralistic politician named Angelo (Pete Simpson, in an over-the-top, physicalized performance) using his Weinsteinian power to grant favors to a beautiful woman in exchange for sex. Angelo, you’ll recall, has been deputized to become leader of decadent Vienna by the Duke (Scott Shepherd) while the latter, disguised as a friar, secretly goes about among the citizens to spy on their (and Angelo’s) behavior. Angelo’s first important act is to sentence a young man, Claudio (Greig Sargeant), to death for the crime of having impregnated his fiancée Juliet (Lindsay Hockaday, who also plays Pompey, the pimp), in violation of a long-ignored law regarding premarital sex.
Mike Iveson, Susie Sokol, Lindsay Hockaday, Scott Shepherd. Photo: Richard Termine.
When Claudio’s sister, Isabella (Rinne Groff), a beautiful young novitiate, is prevailed upon to petition Angelo for clemency, Angelo falls for her and agrees only if she’ll sleep with him. She’s unwilling to sacrifice her chastity for her brother’s life, however, so the plot moves on to multiple complications, including “the bed trick,” involving having Angelo’s discarded love, Mariana (April Matthis), substitute for Isabella in the dark; there's even a substitute head trick, in which another prisoner’s head doubles for Claudio’s to make people think the latter is dead. (Kabuki fans will appreciate this.) Finally, the wily Duke, observing everything from the sidelines, steps in, restores order, and—in yet another expression of sexual power grabbing—takes Isabella for himself.
Maggie Hoffman, Vin Knight, Lindsay Hockaday, Gavin Price, Susie Soko. Photo: Richard Termine.
ERS’s version of the play, its first attempt at Shakespeare, while faithful to the script (which it presents in an intermissionless two hours and ten minutes), is a mélange of avant-garde tropes that eventually become more important than the play itself. This isn’t to deny that occasional flashes of insight occur, or that the actors aren’t all vocally and physical skilled enough to do justice to the words. The tradeoff, though, is a show so bogged down in gimmickry that you lose interest in the narrative and instead focus on directorial “ingenuity.”
Rinne Groff. Photo: Richard Termine.
Questions you may find yourself asking are: why does the set (designed by Jim Findlay), with its long tables, chairs, and old-fashioned phones, resemble a conference room, regardless of the locale; why are moving (and largely unreadable) sections of the text projected on the walls and ceiling (projection design by Eva Schweinitz) when someone slams a button on a table, only to vanish when the button is pressed again (which also happens with Gavin Price’s noteworthy sound design); why, in this kookily dressed production (designed by Kaye Voyce) mingling costumes from several last-century periods, is Isabella, a soon-to-be-nun, dressed like a Mafia widow in a short black dress, heels, and a smart black hat?
Maggie Hoffman, Scott Shepherd. Photo: Richard Termine.
Other questions concern the dialogue: why do the actors sometimes speak so rapidly they seem be in a Peter Piper-picked-a-pickled-pepper contest; why, on the other hand, is the long prison scene between Isabella and Claudio performed so sl-o-o-o-w-ly you may think you see the actors growing old before your eyes; why do Angelo, the Duke, and Escalus speak in dry, nasal, posh British accents; why are there teleprompters at stage right and at the rear of the house, with the text scrolling by for actors who clearly know their lines, and so on?

The answers (acceptable or not) to some of these queries can found in Collins’s program note, where he also mentions the show’s use of “proprietary teleprompter software” to set “the actors’ pace” as a way of performing the show. How, one wonders, could Shakespeare have survived so long without such breakthroughs?
Vin Knight, Pete Simpson, Greig Sargeant, Mike Iveson, Maggie Hoffman, Gavin Price. Photo: Richard Termine.
Oddly, some of this oddball manipulation works, especially when Scott Shepherd’s Duke/Friar Lodowick is around, creating the image of a motor-mouthed, ruler on speed who seems to do what he does merely because he can; his manipulation of the play’s concluding scenes is especially creepy in the offhand way with which he dispenses orders and controls his minions. For the most part, though, this Measure for Measure is a solipsistic exercise that serves more to obscure than clarify what’s already difficult enough to comprehend.
Rinne Groff and company. Photo: Richard Termine.
Collins also observes that what makes Shakespeare’s language in Measure for Measure “genuinely timeless is a kind of music in those sentences and a deeply felt poetry that pulses with emotional truth.” Agreed; however, his production does everything to muffle that verbal music and suppress that emotional pulse. It’s one measure of his achievement that, the night I went, around a dozen people departed midway through. Measure for measure, I assume.
Company of Measure for Measure. Photo: Richard Termine.


The Public Theater/LuEsther Hall
425 Lafayette St., NYC
Through November 12