by Sam Juliano
Measure For Measure, a complex Shakespeare play concerned mostly with issues of morality, is one of it’s creator’s least-performed plays, presumably because the work poses as many questions as it does answers. In fact, literary scholars have long tabbed it a “problem play” with a contrived ending and a contradictory exploration of sexual politics. It’s a tragicomedy that features a heroine who would rather see her brother beheaded than give up her virginity. And it also showcases the dubious edicts of an abusive politician whose hypocricy mirrors present day antics and a clear violation of the old adage “practice what you preach.”
The Duke of Vienna temporarily relinquishes control of his government, and places “Angelo”, a harsh interpretor of the law in control. Angelo wastes no time in immediately condemning Claudio to death for getting his fiance pregnant. Claudio’s sister Isabella, about to enter a convent, attempts to free her brother by approaching Angelo, only to face a desperate dilemma. Angelo will issue a pardon to Claudio if Isabella sacrifices her virginity to him. Meanwhile, the benevolent Duke, who has not really left at all, but stands in the wings assuming a disguise, observes this chosen replacement’s misdeeds. The plot is basically a series of twists and turns, with Isabella’s story alternating with the comic hijinks of a constable named Elbow, a madam named Mistress Overdone, and a bartender called Pompey, among others. The humor is transcribed broadly, much in a style reminiscent of traditional commedia dell’arte, which works effectively as contrasted with the serious resolution of Isabella’s plight. Angelo of course, is the villain of the piece, but one must question the Duke, whose behavior is duplicitous as well, using lies, subterfuge and disguise to accomplish his well-intentioned ends.
The play boasts some beautiful lines (what Shakespeare play doesn’t?) and there are some narratively electrifying passages, but some sections are bogged down by elaborate convolutions that can only be mitigated by elaborate mounting, which certainly isn’t the case with the “Theatre For A New Audience’s” staging, which is texbook minimalism. Characters move about on an empty stage, wearing contemporary garb, with only the ‘spying balcony’ at the back of the platform to offer anything beyond the traditional perspective. Pared down productions of The Bard’s plays are usually effective for the most part, as the language isn’t compromised by other artistic embellishments, regardless of how ravishing they may be. Like some of Shakespeare’s most famous comedies, there are plenty of disguises and wholesale deception in the rhetorical maneuverings. One such perpetrator of deceit, recalls Iago, though Lucio does awaken in the Duke some truths between what is done in private as opposed to what appears to be in public. He sarcastically makes reference to sexual shenanigans by comparing it to other hedonistic pursuits, saying it won’t end “till eating and drinking be put down.”
The Duke’s production lightens up the philosophically opaque context, clearly stressing the more comedic aspects of the play. This is the third Shakespeare play performed at this intimate three-quarter stage theatre in a darkened second floor auditorium on bustling 42nd Street by this company (the others were Othello and Hamlet, both reviewed here at WitD) and the second directed by Arin Arbus, who works hard to cull some strong performances from her solid cast, though truth be said, this production isn’t within hailing distance of Othello, which was a thundering powerhouse production, fueled by a superb moor. The director does receive a tour de force from Jefferson Mays as the Duke, whose multi-shaded turn is marked by broad humerous strokes as well as the more pensive approach to the more austere matters at hand. When Mays dresses up with apparent glee, we are reminded that this versatile actor’s most famous role was in an off-Broadway show that eventually ran on Broadway, titled I Am My Own Wife, which is an examination of the life of German antiquarian Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, born Lothar Berfelde, who killed her father when she was a young boy and survived the Nazi and communist regimes in East Berlin as a transvestite. Mays played over forty roles in this one-man show.
As Angelo, Rocco Sisto matches Mays with ablistering and ultimately poignant portrayal that downplays the malevolent machinations of this trapped character, who knows full well of the horrors he must stay the course on. Whereas Lucio recalls Iago, Angelo envisions the humanism of Shylock, who appears in another play (The Merchant of Venice) technically considered a “comedy” despite its exceeding villainous underpinnings.
As Isabella, Elizabeth Waterston almost obscures her softer side with delivery and mannerisms that are off-putting, but LeRoy McClain hits the mark as Claudio with a stirring performance of great conviction.
Sarah Pickett’s spare music was rather disappointing and the costumes by David Zinn were conventional, with the monarch finery for the head of state, set to contrast. All in all, it’s a good place to start with this curious, hard-to-categorize work, but it’s far from the final word.
Note: I attended ‘Measure for Measure’ on Friday, March 12th at 7:30 PM at the Duke on 42nd Street with Lucille and Broadway Bob. We ate afterwards at The Dish, where I engaged in a splendid plate called ‘chicken santorini’ with breast, some roasted peppers, and a tangy tomato sauce with yellow rice.