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Theatre in Review: Measure for Measure (Elevator Repair Service/The Public Theater)

Rinne Groff. Photo: Richard Termine

Elevator Repair Service's eccentric revival of Measure for Measure is, I think, the first time I've experienced a company waging war on Shakespeare's words. The stage at the Public's LuEsther Hall features a U-shaped table on which sits roughly a dozen candlestick telephones. The cast is already onstage, dressed in various periods. (You could do a vest-pocket staging of The Front Page on it.) The first scene, featuring the Duke, his advisor Escalus, and Angelo, soon to be his deputy, is conducted entirely on the phone. The actors speed their way through the dialogue, to the point that it becomes unintelligible, slowing down in time for the Duke to say, "But I do bend my speech." It gets a laugh of course, but the joke is on Shakespeare.

Then the underlying musical score revs up and all the phones being to ring; the general din drowns out the dialogue. Projections of the script scroll across the ceiling and walls of Jim Findlay's white-paneled set. The actors freeze, and we hear the old-fashioned sound of a dial-up modem. A faxed photo emerges; it is of Greig Sargeant, who plays Claudio, who is being arrested for impregnating his lover, Juliet.

This sequence establishes the production's methodology. Whenever the cast gets to a scene that nobody is interested in actually performing, somebody hits one of the mousepads on stage and dialogue scrolls up the walls and across the ceiling. Sometimes this effect is used to accompany the actors on those occasions when they deliver their lines straight-up. (Interestingly, there are two teleprompters built into the set, something I have only seen before with solo shows such as The Terms of My Surrender.) Rather than getting Shakespeare's play in all its complexity and dark humor, for the first forty-five minutes or so, it's more like Highlights from Measure for Measure; if you aren't especially familiar with the text, you'll have the devil's own time trying figure out what is happening.

Interestingly, the one scene that doesn't seem to have been put on a diet of amphetamines is the prison encounter between Claudio and Isabella, his sister, who has gone to Angelo to plead clemency for her brother. As the pained Isabella reports, Angelo offered to save Claudio from execution, but only if she sleeps with him. At first, Claudio takes Isabella's side, but, by the end of the scene, he is wondering if it wouldn't be such a terrible thing if she gave in. (It was certainly an interesting week to be seeing Measure for Measure, with new reports of Harvey Weinstein's lecherous abuses of power coming out hourly.) This encounter is staged far too deliberately, with pauses that could accommodate a fleet of trucks, but it's such a pleasure to see actors actually playing a scene together, fully engaged in the dialogue and its meaning, that it is easily the production's highlight.

Also, Sargeant and Rinne Groff, the occasion's Isabella, are giving what are by far the production's standout performances. Sargeant's Claudio is authentically terrified of death and he handles the text well. Rinne Groff's Isabella is not an innocent young postulant but a chicly dressed woman of the world; she is disgusted by Angelo's proposition, but she isn't totally surprised by it. She, too, speaks the verse with authority, and whenever she is on stage, she provides the production with a center of gravity.

Otherwise, under John Collins' direction, it's anything goes. Admittedly, Measure for Measure is a confounding work; Angelo's descent into lust and blackmail is only one of several hairpin turns for which Shakespeare provides little or no justification. While most productions try to find some rationale for these events, Collins and company throw up their hands, dispensing with psychology altogether and letting each character play his or her role as he or she will. Some actors use British accents, others drench their vowels in pure Brooklynese. This explains why Scott Shepherd plays the Duke as if he were Ronald Colman rattling off his lines in a Hollywood potboiler. (In most productions, the Duke, observing the action of the play disguised as a friar, undergoes a moral transformation, learning the power of mercy. Not here.) And I guess it explains why Pete Simpson gives Angelo a series of bizarre physical tics that put one in mind of John Cleese's Minister of Silly Walks. In any case, he is the least menacing, least tormented Angelo I've ever seen.

Also, Mike Iveson, as Lucio, delivers all of his speeches in double-time, killing the humor in the scenes in which he smears the Duke to his face, unaware that the latter is traveling incognito. Lindsay Hockaday, as the wronged Juliet, is made to walk around groaning from labor pains, until she pulls a baby doll out from under her dress. Angelo enters toting the head of an executed prisoner -- he thinks it's Claudio -- and poses for an alas-poor-Yorick moment before giving in to retching. When the Duke appears unmasked, the entire company falls to the ground in shock. They do so again when Claudio, thought to be executed, is revealed to be alive.

There are one or two telling moments, including a bit where the returned Duke keeps evading Angelo's proffered hand, setting the stage for Angelo's unmasking. Also, April Matthis gives an extremely grave and compelling reading of Mariana, Angelo's cast-off lover, who lends herself to the bedroom deception that is at the heart of the plot. The production is nothing if not slick. Kaye Voyce dresses the rulers of Vienna (the play's setting) in handsome double-breasted pinstripe suits, while Isabella is fitted out with a black-and-white blouse with black skirt, black cape (to suggest her nun's habit), and a mad little black hat, as if Hattie Carnegie were the convent's style consultant. The lower orders are dressed in a variety of amusing ways. Mistress Overdone, the town's leading bawd, wears a canary-yellow robe over silver glitter jeans. Mark Barton and Ryan Seelig's lighting finds enormous variety in different color temperatures of white light. Eva von Schweinitz's projections are solidly executed, whatever one thinks of them. Gavin Price's sound design employs classical music selections from various eras; it's too bad that the music sometimes drowns out the actors. (The actors are miked, although they only occasionally sound reinforced.) He also provides an assortment of effects, including neighing horses, a prison riot, and a flushing toilet.

In fact, this production has everything but a baseline interest in the text. Watching these actors romping around, playing with one bit of business after another, you have to wonder what drew them to Measure for Measure in the first place. In any case, it's certainly a surprise -- and not an agreeable one -- to see this sort of fooling-around at the Public Theater, where a dedication to Shakespeare is a founding principle. You know, if you don't like his plays, you don't have to do them. -- David Barbour

(16 October 2017)

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