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
Running Time: Two Hours, 20 Minutes, no intermission

Closes: November 12, 2017

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