By JK Clarke
Measure for Measure is one of those Shakespeare plays that’s decidedly hit or miss. A strong production makes for an outstanding play, but,if it’s even a little bit “off” it can make for a dreary evening of theater. Happily, The Acting Company’s new production of Measure for Measure (currently in repertory with Native Son at The Duke on 42nd Street through August 24) is crisp, precise and thoroughly entertaining. It certainly helps that a sizable chunk of the original script, including many beloved scenes with comic characters like Elbow and Pompey, are excised from this version, making a play that normally runs well over two hours come in at a very reasonable 90 minutes. While it may not be an unabridged version, it is nonetheless a powerful production.
Above all, Measure for Measure is a play about the absurdism of intolerance. Though probably used by Shakespeare as a means of taking a public shot at the absolutism of Catholicism (despite, or perhaps because of suspicions that he was a secret Catholic at a time when it was illegal), the play takes what would contemporaneously be an almost Libertarian stance on the concept of an individual’s freedom to make choices and associations of his own liking: when the Duke of Venice (Keshav Moodliar) leaves his city, he leaves his deputy Angelo (Sam Lilja, whose evolves his character perfectly as the play progresses) in charge to test the junior official’s integrity and leadership qualities. Angelo immediately begins a policy of draconian enforcement of arcane laws, particularly those concerning extra-marital sex. He considers the city under the Duke’s sway to have been wayward and out of control, so he swiftly makes an example of a respected local, Claudio (Lorenzo Jackson), condemning him to death for impregnating his girlfriend Juliet (Katherine Renee Turner) out of wedlock (despite the fact that the two had planned to be married).
Just like so many who ardently claim the moral high ground, Angelo is corrupt, and considerably more so than the man he has sentenced to death. Seeing him solemnly bend a knee, the scene is as hypocritical as when Richard III enmeshed in prayer after murdering so many. When Claudio’s sister, Isabella (a very excellent and moving Rebekah Brockman), a novitiate on the verge of taking her vows, pleads with Angelo for mercy, Angelo filthily suggests she trade her virginity to him for her brother’s life. Appalled, Isabella at first refuses, shockingly deciding that she cannot pay for her brother’s sin with her own; but she is persuaded by the Duke, who has stayed in town disguised as a Friar to employ a “bed trick,” thereby convincing Angelo he has slept with her. Angelo instead sleeps with Mariana (Laura Gragtman), whom he had once promised to marry; the move is perhaps dishonest and a bit rapey, but it is nonetheless the ideal scenario for vengeance. Deception follows almost every twist in Measure for Measure, but ultimately Angelo is held to account for his corruption. In a final scene where Shakespeare would ordinarily pair off every conceivable couple at the end of one of his “comedies,” here the actual text leaves Isabella’s response to the Duke’s shocking proposal ambiguous. However, under Janet Zarish’s precise direction nothing is left to the imagination and Isabella’s profound reaction is both satisfying and logical.
In an interesting coincidence, just a few blocks away at Lincoln Center there is a production of the play The Rolling Stone, which deals with a modern version of the same horrifying, yet absurd problem: a young man in Uganda is threatened with death or imprisonment for being a homosexual. Same problem—in essence a radical, idiotic biblical interpretation—different era. The Acting Company’s take on Measure for Measure emphasizes the starkness of the tyrannical laws that darken the Dukedom. Neil Patel’s stark set design feels more like a prison than a royal court, with gray, concrete, brutalist walls that cast a foreboding over the proceedings. Jessica Wegener Shay’s stunning modern costumes add an unexpected elegance that often creates compelling contrasts. Isabella, despite being a nun-in-training, is wearing a stunning, form-fitting white dress with buttons up the front that could double as a wedding dress (intended, perhaps, for Jesus?). Meanwhile, Claudio’s prison garb harkens Guantanamo, casting a chilling pall even during semi-comical moments. Both these plays make a statement about intolerance and severity—it’s unnecessary, illogical and usually imposed by hypocrites. They are messages in lockstep with the times.
Measure for Measure. Through August 24 at The Duke on 42nd Street (229 West 42nd Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues). www.theactingcompany.org
Photos: T. Charles Erickson