By Karen Isaacs
Long Wharf is presenting Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure that has been conceptualized and produced by the Fiasco Theater Company which specializes in “down-sizing” larger works. This production which played in NYC already is on the stage through Sunday, Dec. 20.
Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s darkest comedies – right up there with The Merchant of Venice with its anti-Semitic attitudes. In Measure for Measure it is not the attitudes that make it dark but the essence of the plot – asking a nun for a sexual favor – that makes it seem so unpleasant.
As in many Shakespearean comedies, one of the major themes is the responsibility of the ruler to rule effectively and wisely. Another theme is hypocrisy by those who feel smug about their virtues. The play was written in the early 1600s during the same peiord Shakespeare was producing many of his great tragedies.
In the play, the ruler, the Duke Vincentio who rules Vienna, decides to leave the city, supposedly on a diplomatic mission, and turn over authority to Angelo, his deputy in his absence. Angelo is a man who struts his purity and virtuousness. But, this being Shakespeare, Vincentio has another motive. He will linger around the city disguised as the Friar Lodovick to see how Angelo actually rules. But wait – he has another, even deeper motive. While Vienna has strict laws about morality – banning prostitution, adultery, premarital sex and more – Vincentio has not been strictly enforcing these; in fact they are now mostly ignored. Later in the play, he explains that there would be a public outcry if he suddenly tightened the enforcement; he hopes that in his absence, Angelo will do that for him. Then he can return to a more orderly city.
Angelo does indeed begin to enforce these laws and among the first caught is the young gentleman Claudio who is jailed because he got his fiancée, Juliet, pregnant. The punishment? Beheading! A friend of Claudio’s, Lucio who is a rather fobbish gentleman, goes to Claudio’s sister Isabella to tell her the news. He suggests that Isabella, who is about to take her vows as a nun, go to Angelo and beg him for her brother’s life.
She does so but Angelo at first seems steadfast in his decision. Yet he is attracted to Isabella and so suggests a bargain: if she will spend the night with him, he will pardon her brother. Of course, the Duke disguised as the Friar learns of this and helps set up a plot. He tells Isabella to agree but then gets Marianna who had been betrothed to Angelo and still loves him (he threw her over when her dowry was lost at sea) to take the place of Isabella in Angelo’s bed. So it is, but Angelo reneges on his agreement and asks Claudio’s jailer to send his head to him.
After some more tense moments, all is worked out. Claudio is finally released and will officially marry Juliet, Angelo is forced to marry Marianna, and the Duke asks Isabella to marry him.
Mixed into this are the usual characters designed to appeal to the ”groundlings” in Shakespeare’s audience – the lower classes who stood closest to the stage. These are the characters that have the bawdiest lines and the most outrageous humor and supply the real laughs. In Measure for Measure these included the tapster (barkeep)/pimp Pompey Bum, Mistress Overdone the manager of a brothel, and Elbow, a constable.
The Fiasco Theater is a small troupe that has specialized in adapting works in a more improvisational manner – they use limited props and sets, and a small cast that plays multiple roles. It began when the members were graduate acting students at Brown University. Their production of Into the Woods has delighted many critics though I was definitely less enthralled.
Their staging of this play has been adapted to the Long Wharf thrust stage. The set consists of six doorframes of various styles as well as a few tables, chairs, etc. The door frames are moved around the stage to suggest various locations. Unfortunately in the second half of the show, two of the doorframes are positioned in a way that blocks the view of some audience members; I was among those who could not clearly see the characters for at least five minutes.
Costumes are also suggestive – instead of a monk’s robe, Friar Ludovick wears what appears to be a burlap scarf that he wraps about his head. You can get the picture.
Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld co-directed this production which is very much a collaborative effort.
So that leads us to the overall view of the show and the acting. First of all, songs have been added to the piece at the beginning of each half and the finale. Unfortunately the lyrics, which seem to be in modern English are very difficult to understand; I only caught a few of the lyrics. The music sets a tone for this piece, but not the proper tone.
The small cast plays multiple roles and that too creates confusion and problems. Jessie Austrian plays not only the Duke’s aide but also the provost who runs the prison and Mariana. It is at times difficult to understand who she is playing at any given moment particularly with the limited costumes. They all sound and look the same.
Other performers have a little easier tasks since their characters are so different: Paul L. Coffey plays both the straight laced Angelo and also the ignorant Elbow. Noah Brody plays the despairing Claudio and the dissolute Pompey. Emily Young plays both Isabella and Mistress Overdone. In these cases, the wide disparity of the characters makes it easier for both the performer and the audience to recognize each. Andy Grotelueschen plays the Duke with a softness that does not serve the character well. Ben Steinfeld’s Lucio is so over-the-top that it totally throws the balance of the piece off. He should be humorous but he should not dominate the production which is what happens.
In addition, none of the actors really speak the Shakespearean dialogue effectively.
In its fifty year history, Long Wharf has presented numerous Shakespeare productions on its stages. Unfortunately, these productions have rarely been even successful. It seems that Long Wharf and Shakespeare – no matter who is the artistic director, the director or the cast – is jinxed.
I wish I could say that the Fiasco Theater Company’s production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure breaks the jinx. But there is enough that is misguided about this production to make it problematic. Yet, since this is a play that is produced less often, it is worth seeing.
Measure for Measure is at Long Wharf, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven through Sunday, Dec. 20. For tickets call 203-787-4282 or visit longwharf.org.
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