‘Measure for Measure’ Full of Dual Natures and Hard Choices
New York Times
By Ben Brantley
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
So many doors, each opening on to what God only knows. What do you think is behind, say, this one, with the grill? A treat or a trick? A lady or a tiger? Mercy or mortality?
That last coupling of opposites comes from Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” a strange play of hard choices that has been given a most charming new production at the New Victory Theater, in which the scenery consists of little more than six portable doors. That’s right, I said charming. And, yes, I know that’s not an adjective usually found anywhere near “Measure for Measure,” one of the creepiest plays in the canon.
But this version is the work of the Fiasco Theater, a small company of infinite resourcefulness (as opposed to resources) that is celebrated for removing the prickliness from nettlesome classics. Its blissful “Cymbeline”of several years ago turned a shaggy, shadowy labyrinth of a play into an invigoratingly straightforward romp.
Still, “Measure for Measure” is a tough knot to untie, perhaps the most problematic of all the so-called problem plays of Shakespeare. A study of what happens when stringent morality is brought to bear on a decadent society, “Measure for Measure” doesn’t have a single character whom modern audiences are likely to feel like rooting for.
Its most seemingly righteous figure, a power-wielding puritan, turns out to be a lust-addled hypocrite; its demure heroine, a rigid nun-to-be who isn’t about to give up her virtue, even if it means saving her brother’s life. As for the big guy, a duke who runs both the state of Vienna and the plot of the play, he’s a self-appointed deus ex machina who goes into disguise to meddle cruelly in the affairs of others for reasons he can’t even explain to himself.
Yet by the end of this streamlined production, which opened Friday night and runs through March 16, I found myself kind of liking all these jerks, even that boastful lecher who tells lies about everybody else. Sure, he’s two-faced, but what this production makes so clear is that in “Measure for Measure,” life is two-faced, as are inevitably those who live it. Ambivalence, as one super vacillator named Hamlet could tell you, is an unavoidable part of being human.
The six ensemble members of the Fiasco production, who include its co-directors, Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, lead us to this perception not through anguished, internalized acting but a clean-lined, clean-spoken approach that lets the story define its inhabitants. The dialogue is delivered with feeling, sometimes intensely so, but psychological tics and flourishes never block the view of the big picture here. And for once, that picture is remarkably clear. (As a production of the New Victory, which is geared toward younger audiences, this production should be accessible to literate children over the age of 10, but it has a sophisticated take on a classic that even hard-core Shakespeare fans should appreciate.)
Such lucidity comes partly from Fiasco’s signature avoidance of cluttering scenery, both physical and interpretive. Most recent versions of “Measure for Measure” I’ve seen have piled on the conceptual kinks, turning Shakespeare’s Vienna into one big S&M bar, with flamboyantly neurotic characters who might have sprung from the couch of a later resident of that town, Sigmund Freud.
The folks at Fiasco, though, understand that Shakespeare is quite complex enough to begin with, and that anachronistic glosses are more likely to muddle than illuminate. Like the Bedlam theater — whose four-actor“Hamlet” is one of this season’s highlights — Fiasco tells its complicated stories simply, letting the patterns within Shakespeare’s plots and poetry assert themselves as organically as possible.
Designed by Derek McLane, “Measure for Measure” has for its scenery only a desk, a chair, some benches and those six, variously shaped rolling doors. A multiplicity of doors on a stage summons expectations of a farce or perhaps a game show. In any case, doors are a handy metaphor for the mysteries of life and human nature. You’re never entirely sure what one will open to reveal. And in “Measure for Measure,” you’re never entirely sure how people are going to behave.
Take the play’s protagonist, Duke Vincentio (Andy Grotelueschen), who sets the plot rolling by handing over the governance of loose-living Vienna to the martinet Angelo (Paul L. Coffey), who is to rule with the help of the honorable Escalus (Jessie Austrian). One of Angelo’s first acts is to sentence to death a young man named Claudio (Mr. Brody) for fornicating with his betrothed before they were married.
Claudio’s slimy friend, Lucio (Mr. Steinfeld), seeks out the sister of the condemned man, Isabella (Emily Young), a convent novitiate, to plead her brother’s case to Angelo, who is struck by lust at first sight. And on the sidelines, the Duke, now disguised as a friar, watches, kibitzes and finally steps in to take charge again, through means that include that most unsavory of Shakespearean devices, “the bed trick.” (That’s when one person pretends to be another during sex.)
Each of the cast members play a second part, except for Mr. Grotelueschen, whose disguised Duke is a two-in-one figure to begin with. This double casting seems especially appropriate in a play about double natures. (Ms. Young, for instance, doubles as the chaste Isabella and the pricelessly named whoremonger Mistress Overdone.) And, oh yes, the ensemble serves as a choir, too, punctuating the action with songs by the Renaissance composer William Byrd.
Those of you quicker at math than I am may have determined that this “Measure for Measure” has a roster of 11 speaking parts, which is fewer than half of those in the original script. The play has been trimmed, and some dialogue redistributed. But for me, at least, any excisions only further help cut to the essence of a work that is all about duality, ambivalence and choice.
You find yourself hearing contradictions in every other sentence spoken, and you laugh at the precisely rendered illogic. That’s the comedy of “Measure for Measure,” and the Fiasco version has a comedy’s pace and crispness. But it never forgets that the same irreconcilable elements are potentially the stuff of tragedy, too, of fatal conflicts and self-destruction.
When the cast joins voices in a hymn or madrigal by Byrd, there’s something very touching about the melding of all those voices, given the discord of the characters we’ve met. Harmony is not naturally the stuff of life, but it is of art. Perhaps it’s Fiasco’s grateful awareness of this principle that makes a normally sour slice of Shakespeare sound so sweet.