by Carol Rocamora
“Problem play?” What “problem play?!!”
Leave it to the adventurous Elevator Repair Service company to take a challenging Shakespearean text like Measure for Measure, one that has long confounded scholars (not to mention directors), and turn it into a wacky and wonderful romp.
“We thrive in contradiction and theatrical puzzles,” says John Collins, the company’s founder and fearless director. Measure for Measure offers puzzles aplenty – a dark comedy set in corrupt, medieval Vienna where religious piety is the rule of law but hypocrisy and abuse of power abound. It tells the story of Isabella (Rinne Groff), a pious novitiate, whose brother Claudio (Greig Sargeant) has been sentenced to death for having premarital sex (forbidden in that day). She appeals to Angelo (Pete Simpson), the de facto leader of Vienna, to save her brother – and he agrees, providing Isabella sleep with him. Eventually, the Duke (Scott Shepherd, who has been observing all these goings-on in disguise) steps in like a deus ex machina, and all’s well that ends well (almost).
It’s a bait-and-switch plot and a tangled web, to say the least, but that’s just the kind of challenge that Collins and his intrepid ensemble relish. After all, this is the company that tackles formidable novels and turns them into thriving theatre fare. They performed Gatz (2010), the seven-hour reading of Fitzgerald’s novel, to audience awe and critical acclaim. They converted Hemingway’s The Sound and the Fury (2015) into an arresting theatrical evening.
So “it was time to meet Shakespeare,” Collins said. As with their previous projects, Collins and his company sought a unique way to engage with the original text. They found it…. through Shakespeare’s words.
The text is the star of the show – as spoken by the cast and as projected simultaneously on the upstage wall of Jim Findlay’s eclectic set. Collins said that reading the text from the projections was a discovery they made by accident in rehearsal – and I’m so glad they did. I found it revelatory to hear those immortal words articulated by the actors and follow them simultaneously on Eva von Schweinitz’s fabulous projections.
Eclecticism is the modus operandi of this fearless company, so there are a lot of contradictory aesthetics going on at the same time – intentionally. The cast is seated around a U-shaped meeting table in some kind of nameless office throughout most of the show, and often converse through antique telephones. The mix-and-match costumes (from various periods) are colorful, and the sound design features a range of music from baroque to swing. The company delivers their lines at breakneck speed, and their farcical, screwball style ranges from commedia to Marx Brothers to Monte Python.
But there’s method in this director’s madness. Ultimately, all these clashing styles coalesce into a glorious, zany, exuberant, hodge-podge whole.
As the deceiving Duke, the wily and wonderful Scott Shepherd boasts a British accent out of Downton Abbey (above-stairs) – then, when he’s disguised as a monk, it’s American. As the double-dealing Angelo, Pete Simpson channels a terrific version of John Clees (from the Pythons). In contrast, as Isabella and her brother Claudio, Rinne Groff and Greig Sargeant give touching, realistic performances, and their scene together, spoken in slow, hushed tones, is a brilliant (and directorially deliberate) contrast to the surrounding merry mayhem. The rest of the agile company is equally engaging in multiple roles.
The final scene – complete with revealed identities, collapsing actors, three babies, and a wedding – is hilarious, orchestrated chaos at its finest. Thank you, Public Theater, for giving this priceless theatre company a home.
Photos: Richard Termine
Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, created and performed by Elevator Repair Service, directed by John Collins, at the Public Theatre, now through November 15. www.publictheater.org