Sunday, October 15, 2017

Measure For Measure - A cup more than half empty


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Elevator Repair Service, known for taking literary classics and adapting them to the stage - with results ranging from somewhat interesting to completely astonishing - makes their first foray into the world of William Shakespeare with a production of Measure For Measure. Though if you're unfamiliar with the work, odds are you'll quickly find yourself lost in this slapstick-heavy, character-lite presentation now at the Public Theater.

In Vienna, immorality has been running rampant. Prostitution, drunkenness, lechery and similar vices all steadily on the increase. Hitting on a plan to stem this tide of inequity, the Duke of Vienna (Scott Shepherd) announces he will temporarily depart the city and leave the well-regarded Angelo (Pete Simpson) to rule in his place. The Duke confident that the pious and upright Angelo will be able to restore morality and order to Vienna. Something the Duke himself has been unable to do in all his years in office. Assisting Angelo in this task will be the Duke's trusted confidant, Escalus (Vin Knight).

Despite his proclamations to the contrary, the Duke has no plans to leave Vienna. Rather, he intends to clothe himself in the garb of a humble friar and, thus disguised, move about the city unnoticed while observing Angelo's actions and their results.

Once Angelo assumes control, he wastes no time in enforcing the Duke's wishes. Houses of ill repute are pulled down or shuttered, and a strict no-tolerance policy towards other moral weaknesses is strictly enforced.

Among those caught up in the regulations of this new regime is Claudio (Greig Sargeant). Found guilty of impregnating a woman out of wedlock, he has been sentenced to be hanged. It doesn't matter the woman in question is his fiancée, Juliet (Lindsay Hockaday). Angelo keen on making an example of Claudio in order to show that no one is above the law. In desperation, Claudio implores his sister, the beautiful Isabella (Rinne Groff), who is about to enter a convent, to plead his case.

Much to Angelo's surprise, he finds himself responding to Isabella in a totally unprofessional manner and, after a bit of internal conflict, yields to his baser impulses. He offering to have Claudio freed only if Isabella first spends the night with him. While all seems lost for the brother and sister, unexpected help arrives in the form of the disguised Duke, who overhears their plight while visiting the prison where Claudio is being held. The Duke putting his own plans into motion in an attempt to ensure that everyone gets exactly the justice they deserve.

In the rights hands, Measure for Measure is a play ripe with possibilities. Particularly due to the wealth of satirical targets the text presents. Including, the hypocrisy of overly zealous moralists, politicians who pass the buck and then take swoop in and take the credit, and how the legal and penal systems can be usurped by some for their own purposes. A hilarious example of the last being a prisoner (Gavin Prince) who refuses to be executed on the day he is to die because he happens to be too drunk. Shakespeare's not-that-subtle attack on those in power being visible from the first moment of the play to the last.

Measure for Measure is also considered one of Shakespeare's so-called "problem plays". Largely because the course Shakespeare has laid out for this story is not always an easy one to navigate. Both ERS and director John Collins being unable to effectively do so.

Rather than edit the text to suit their particular vision, the company, Collins also being ERS' artistic director, has instead decided to present the piece basically as is. While shortening the work's running time by having the various characters speak their dialogue very, very fast. The actual text projected on the walls at such times to give the audience the chance to follow along.

Unfortunately in speeding up the dialogue, Collins and company have also removed all of the potential cadences, shadings and other inflections that show the words to be far more than what's written on the page. As a result, everything spoken in this manner feels totally flat, with most of the characters seeming more like cardboard cutouts than anything resembling flesh and blood. This is especially true for Isabella. Groff giving the impression in these sequences of someone simply reading lines her verbatim and not caring a wit about what she's saying. Yet when her dialogue is slowed down to normal speed, she and Sargeant blow the roof off the theatre in a scene where Claudio pleads with Isabella to give in to Angelo's demands in order that his life be spared. This then showing the problem to be not so much the actors, but that the company's the vision for the production.

The main dramatic elements aren't the only casualties of the rapid-fire dialogue. Comedic subplots also suffering. Nowhere is this more evident than in a scene where a constable (Hockaday) brings in two men to face charges related to bawdy-house activities. Meant to be a poke at the legal system, and filled with twisted words and cutting comments, this entire sequence comes across as dull and lifeless.

The company has also tried to infuse the story with a number of slapstick elements. Some of which work quite well. Such as Angelo tossing papers into the air as he and Escalus go over some business matters. There's also an enjoyable moment early on where the characters recite their dialogue through old-style mouthpiece telephones. The set consisting of long rows of tables with phones atop them - kind of calling to mind the set of The Front Page. However other comical efforts suffer from severe overplaying. A example being the characters responding to some of the coincidences (a.k.a. plot twists) Shakespeare plays are famous for. The unrealistic responses being even more glaring as they occur in the final scene of the play.

Simpson does a rather nice turn as Angelo. Both in acting out his internal crisis of faith, and with his slapstick-laden reactions to events going on around him. He also being one of the few performers able to make his character at least partly resonate with the audience. Sets by Jim Findlay work well, as do the costumes by Kaye Voyce, some of which suggest a 1930s/1940s feel.

An interesting experiment to be sure, the final result is simply too far off the mark to effective. Hopefully, ERS's next theatrical effort will be something more satisfying.

Featuring: Scott Shepard (The Duke). Vin Knight (Escalus), Peter Simpson (Angelo), Mike Iveson (Lucio), Maggie Hoffman (Provost), Gavin Price (Froth/Friar/Boy/Barnardine/Messenger), Susie Sokol (Mistress Overdone/Elbow/Abhorson/Varrius), Lindsay Hockaday (Pompey/Juliet), Greig Sargeant (Claudio), April Matthis (Nun/Mariana), Rinne Gross (Isabella)

Measure For Measure

Written by William Shakespeare
Created and performed by Elevator Repair Service

Set Designer: Jim Findlay
Costume Designer: Kaye Voyce
Lighting Designers: Mark Barton & Ryan Seelig
Projection Designer: Eva Von Schweinitz
Sound Designer: Gavin Price
Specialty & Prop Designer: Amanda Villalobos
Teleprompter Software Designer: Scott Shepard
Production Manager: David Nelson
ERS Producer: Ariana Smart Truman
Production Stage Manager: Maurina Lioce
Assistant Stage Manager: Spencer Armstrong

Directed by John Collins

The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
Tickets: 212-967-7555 or www.publictheater.org
Running Time: Two Hours, 20 Minutes, no intermission

Closes: November 12, 2017

Friday, October 6, 2017

A Clockwork Orange - Where It's All In The Eyes Of The Beholder


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

One of the more provocative dramas to hit the Off-Broadway stage in recent years is the U.K. import, A Clockwork Orange. A transfer of Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel to the stage, the work is a powerful indictment against violence, as well as the methods some people undertake to try to stop it. The play currently having its New York premiere at New World Stages.

In present day England, teenage Alex deLarge (Jonno Davies) and his fellow droogs (a.k.a. gang members), gleefully partake in frequent rampages of violence. Causing mayhem and fear for no particular reason other than the thrills it gives them. The gang adapt at such efforts as breaking and entering, robbery, theft, assault and in some cases, rape and murder. One could actually call them rebels with nothing specific to rebel against.

While Alex has been able to talk his way out of tight scraps in the past - due to his pretty face, his feigning ignorance of the seriousness of his actions, and the hope others have that he can still be redeemed - all that changes when he’s arrested for murder and subsequently convicted. Alex’s downfall caused by a betrayal of one of his own gang. One whom Alex had tangled with previously and who still nurses a grudge against him.

Once in jail, Alex continues to use his powers of persuasion to try to skew the system to his own advantage. He helped in his efforts by prison guards who are more than willing to turn a blind eye in certain matters, so long as order is maintained. Upon learning that participation in a certain experiment will lead to his almost immediate release, Alex quickly volunteers to be a test subject.

However, the procedure in question is both revolutionary and controversial. The plan being that it will supposedly remove Alex's inherent violent tendencies by conditioning his body to reject them. Thus making the process akin to a sort of lobotomy. There are also many who voice their misgivings about the whole idea. Particularly the prison Chaplain (Timothy Sekk), who feels that any such change has to come from within. But with a society clamoring for protection against a systemic rise in violence, and the resulting issue of prison overcrowding – which one prisoner protests against, to no avail – the project is given the green light to proceed.

While the novel was written at a time where youth violence was on the rise in Britain, the story remains quite timeless due to its central theme of one’s personal rights – in this case the right to be violent - being sacrificed for the greater good. A question that’s been debated numerous times over the years and will, in all probability, continue to be long into the future.

Particularly ironic is how Alex finds himself becoming a tool for those on both sides of the debate. First with the authorities who rely on an untested solution to solve a widespread problem, thus enabling them to remain in power; and later with the so-called "free-thinkers" who want to use Alex to advance their own cause and condemn the experiment. Though in a rather poetic twist, when one of those in the latter camp turns out to be someone who previously suffered at Alex’s hands, he immediately condemns him. All the while conveniently forgetting that the person Alex is now is quite different from who he once was.

Davies, who previously played Alex in the U.K., gives nothing less than a tour-de-force performance. His portrayal of a young man who enjoys violence for its own sake is frighteningly real. While his seemingly involuntary reactions after the experiment are poignant and affecting enough to turn the character from villain to victim. This “switchover” – for want of a better word - then leads to the core question of the work. Specifically, when does society go too far in trying to stamp out the symptoms of a disease, instead of trying to cure its root cause?

Also quite illuminating is a scene where Alex meets up with some of his former droogs who have since become members of a law-enforcement unit. Their new status being someone's idea of using "ex-villains to catch real villains". The authorities giving these new recruits pretty much free reign in terms of how they get the job done.

The rest of the all-male cast, many of whom play multiple roles, both male and female, are excellent. Sekk in particular, does a good turn as the firebrand Chaplain. Both via his speeches to the inmates and in his protest against the experiment in which Alex becomes involved. Brian Lee Huynh is quietly terrifying as Dr. Brodsky, architect of the experiment. A man supremely confident in his theories and all too-willing to field test them, regardless of the dangers involved. Another standout is Ashley Robinson as the Minister, a career politician who sees Brodsky’s methods as a way of placating a frightened public.

Also quite good is the way the cast (American except for Davies) delivers the dialogue, particularly the droog-speak, all of which is indicative of a sub-culture these young men share.

Direction by Alexandra Spencer-Jones is very well-done. Especially when it comes to the stylistic approach used for much of the on-stage violence - particularly when it’s Alex who's delivering it. This initially appears somewhat disconcerting, until one realizes the audience is seeing the entire story through Alex's eyes. Thus, when Alex is inflicting said violence, he sees it as nothing less than beautiful. Though when the violence is done to him, not so much. Davies being the show's Fight Captain also helps here. He working hand in hand with Spencer-Jones, and Dance Captain Aleksander Varadian, to give an otherworldly feel to much of the physical action presented. All of which makes it no less terrifying. The accompanying music, both original and existing – the latter of which includes Beethoven, a favorite of Alex's - helps to add to this atmosphere.

Ending not with a bang, but with a whimper that resonates just as strongly, A Clockwork Orange offers a powerful comment on the cyclical yet continuing nature of violence and how those who are able to move beyond it, only do so on their own accord. Though sadly, without leaving any clues for the generations who come after to avoid falling into the same trap.

Featuring: Jonno Davies (Alex deLarge), Jimmy Brooks (F-Me Pumps/Billy Boy/Governor/Policeman/Comedian/Dolin/Len), Matt Doyle (Georgie/Zophar/Nurse Bromine), Sean Patrick Higgins (Dim/Pedofil/Joe The Lodger/Aide), Brian Lee Huynh (Frank Alexander/Dr. Brodsky/Big Jew/Dad), Misha Osherovich (Pete/The Doc/Rubenstein) Ashley Robinson (Minister/Old Woman/Rich Bitch/Policeman/Mum/Bully), Timothy Sekk (Chaplain/Mr. Deltoid/Mary/Rick), Aleksander Varadian (Marty/Warder/Mark Alexander/Dr. Branom).

A Clockwork Orange

By Anthony Burgess

Lighting Design: James Baggaley
Sound Design: Emma Wilk
Costume Coordinator: Jennifer A. Jacob
Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis
Production Stage Manager: Vanessa Dodgson-Thomas
Assistant Stage Manager: Lilly Deerwater
Production Management: Libby Jensen
Company Manager: Kelly Ann Gray
Advertising and Marketing: AKA
Social Media: Janine Lee Papio
Press Representative: Vivacity Media Group
Casting: Stewart/Whitley
General Management: Martian Entertainment LLC/Glynis Henderson Productions Ltd.
Original Music Composed by Glenn Gregory and Berenice Scott
Associate Producers: Rachel Roussel-Tyson/Tyrus Emory
Fight Captain: Jonno Davies
Dance Captain: Aleksander Varadian

Directed by Alexandra Spencer-Jones

Presented at New World Stages
Address: 340 West 50th Street
Tickets: 1-800-447-7400 or www.telecharge.com
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Closes: January 6, 2018



This production of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess was originally developed and presented by Action to the World (U.K.) and directed by Alexandra Spencer-Jones