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Theatre in Review: Measure for Measure (Theatre for a New Audience)

Jonathan Cake, Cara Ricketts. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

"Oh, look -- a butt plug." You don't often hear that comment at a Shakespeare production, but that's what the woman behind me said as we entered the auditorium at Theatre for a New Audience a few nights ago. Her observation was accurate, but it wasn't the half of it. Instead of going in the usual way, we were directed to a side entrance where we passed through a kind of pop-up brothel: In one room, a heterosexual couple appeared to be in the middle of coitus while, on the floor, another man writhed in agony, ecstasy, or withdrawal -- take your pick. We passed a number of doors that resembled the viewing booths of the sort once found in seedy 42nd Street sex dives. Around a corner, we were watched by a guy in a mask, slouched and leering in our general direction. And there were several shelves' worth of sex toys, including dildos and, yes, butt plugs.

Has Randy Weiner, impresario of such immersive displays of decadence as Queen of the Night and Seeing You, turned his gaze toward classical theatre? All evidence to the contrary, no. We were experiencing director Simon Godwin's take on Measure for Measure, and although his vision is elaborate, it isn't all that different from so many other productions we have seen of Shakespeare's great ambiguous, troublesome play. This lurid port of entry, provided by Paul Wills, the set designer, and aided by some game cast members, is impressive enough, but hardly necessary. As usual, Shakespeare tells you everything you need to know; such lily-gilding is superfluous.

Then again, this strenuous on-stage display of sin -- some of the male characters peruse their crotches for infestations of crabs, and, at one point, a rubber blow-up doll is produced -- is par for the course these days. Because Measure for Measure is set in a Vienna where licentious behavior runs riot -- pitted against a religio-political structure that pursues a capital punishment-driven vision of law and order -- directors try to outdo his predecessors in shocking audiences with displays of fornication, addiction, and general carrying-on. Twenty and thirty years ago, the lewder citizens of Vienna sported track marks and purple lesions indicative of HIV infection; we can be glad those days have passed. The revels of Godwin's production are more along the lines of Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, what with well-dressed hedonists in masks running around a scene decorated with balloons and trays of champagne.

There were moments when I wished Godwin had given less attention to such scene-stealing antics and focused more on the complex psychology of the three lead characters. Any production of an ensemble work such as this will undoubtedly thrust the spotlight in different directions; this time, it is firmly focused on Jonathan Cake as Duke Vincentio, whose strange decision to absent himself from Vienna, which he governs, sets the plot in motion. Shakespeare isn't clear about Vincentio's motives, which leaves plenty of room for interpretation; here Vincentio is a full-fledged member of the city's party scene who, afraid of his own penchant for excess, flees for his life, or his soul. Of course, he isn't really gone; donning a friar's habit, he remains incognito until, appalled at the perversions of justice enacted by those in power, he takes action. In Cake's interpretation, Vincentio is eaten up with anxiety -- sickened by extremes of virtue and vice that prove equally destructive, and desperate to restore some rational form of moral order. He's a man with a mission, which becomes increasingly complicated as he falls for Isabella, the play's tormented heroine. He is the most intriguingly conflicted character on stage and, despite his many manipulations, the most magnetic; this may be Cake's best performance yet.

Vincentio leaves Vienna in the hands of Angelo, who, as played by Thomas Jay Ryan, is so repressed that his evil deeds can hardly be credited. Taking Shakespeare at his word -- Vincentio says, "Lord Angelo is precise, stands at a guard with envy; scarce confesses that his blood flows, or that his appetite is more to bread than stone" -- Ryan gives us a villain suffering from a bad case of bloodlessness. This works well in his early appearances, when, presiding over a Viennese version of night court, he coolly dispatches one malefactor after another -- and condemning to death Claudio, brother of Isabella, for a simple act of fornication. Godwin tellingly turns one of Angelo's key speeches ("We must not make a scarecrow of the law/Setting it up to fear the birds of prey,/And let it keep one shape, till custom make it/Their perch and not their terror") into a policy statement delivered to an unseen audience of supporters. But when he becomes maddened by lust -- Isabella, a young novice, comes to plead for her brother's life, which Angelo will spare in exchange for her virtue -- he barely turns up the temperature more than a couple degrees. (This is one of the duller presentations of sexual harassment that I have encountered.) In the past, Ryan has been brilliant at internalizing his characters' feelings, but, this time out, the effort backfires. There's no sense of a man horrified at his loss of control -- making demands that only an hour earlier he would have found repugnant -- largely because he keeps his feelings so firmly tamped down.

Isabella, who is handed an impossible moral choice by Angelo, and who becomes deeply caught up in Vincentio's plot -- which includes a morally dubious assignation in which Angelo is duped into sleeping with the wrong woman -- is played by Cara Ricketts as a woman of single-minded virtue and an iron will. She has a strong presence and handles the verse with ease, but her approach is oddly one-dimensional. In my experience, the best Isabellas -- including Kate Burton at Lincoln Center in 1989 and Jacqueline Kim at Theatre for a New Audience in 1986 -- are deeply pious women horrified at the machinations of the men unfolding around her. Isabella is far more interesting when her moral resolve is dogged by a nagging touch of guilt -- would it really be a sin to sleep with Angelo and save her brother from certain death? -- not to mention a certain revulsion at the seamy activities in which she is forced to take part. This allows the character to evolve, gaining strength and purpose as she becomes enmeshed in Vincentio's intrigues. Ricketts' take on the character -- a strong woman fighting an entrenched male power structure -- is very au courant, but it lacks the shadings that would make her truly engaging.

The production benefits from a number of fine supporting performances, however. Haynes Thigpen makes the dissipated Lucio into a genial scoundrel, addressing Isabella with "Hail, virgin, if you be" in a tone that suggests that the proposition is highly suspect, and saying scornfully of Angelo, "the ungenitured agent will unpeople the province with continency; sparrows must not build in his house eaves, because they are lecherous." Merritt Janson offers an original take on Mariana, Angelo's cast-off lover, here reduced to singing in a road house. January LaVoy is an oasis of good sense and moderated virtue as Escala, who governs with Angelo; she also doubles effectively as the procuress Mistress Overdone. As Barnardine, the most unrepentant of wrongdoers, Zachary Fine makes the most of some of Shakespeare's blackest comic scenes, falling into a deep, snore-ridden sleep on the chopping block; he also amuses as the dim, overzealous cop, Elbow. Leland Fowler is a well-spoken Claudio, watching time elapse on the Viennese version of death row. Oberon K. A. Adjepong, a new face, impresses as the Provost, who runs the jail and schemes with Vincentio to save Claudio's life.

Aside from that walk-through bordello, Wills' set design is restrained, although his use of a large-scale jail cell in certain scenes poses sightline problems for audiences sitting on the right and left sides of the three-sided thrust configuration. His thoughtfully done costumes range from religious garb to prison uniforms to chic tuxes. Matthew Richards' lighting makes good use of head-high side light to effectively carve the actors out of the stage, also creating a believably noirish atmosphere. Jane Shaw's rock score and sound design are typically solid.

Aside from a silly bit where audience members are given flags to wave, greeting Vincentio's return -- an infantilizing touch thoroughly out of place in a play filled with dark moral paradoxes and even darker humor -- the second half of Godwin's production is stronger than the first, and everything unquestionably comes together in the climax, when Isabella, believing Claudio to be dead, must make a choice between forgiveness and revenge. Suddenly, Vincentio's scheme -- which, at times, seems surprisingly squalid -- acquires a purpose. Is justice based on the concept of measure for measure really justice at all? (Godwin also stages a charming bit of business in which Isabella, discovering that Vincentio loves her, decides to take charge of the situation.) At long last, a production that seemed merely trendy reveals how directly it speaks to the present moment. The real drama of Measure for Measure is found in its characters' souls, not in any mechanical displays of concupiscence. -- David Barbour

(26 June 2017)

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