Measure for Measure has one of those almost tedious, certainly too tidy dénouements of Shakespeare’s problem plays: here, in order to wrap up a convoluted story of the just exercise of power and morality that veers into absolutism, no less than two sentences, three pardons, and four weddings are proclaimed in the final scene. The experimental theater company Elevator Repair Service, best known for its eight-hour, word-for-word production of The Great Gatsby, clearly has no fear of respecting a text to the letter. But in its production of Measure for Measure at The Public Theater, the company cruises so unceremoniously through that last scene that the final pronouncement is hardly uttered before the show’s star, Scott Shepherd, as the Duke, has hurried off stage, almost out of character before even hitting the wings.
But that is the point of this frenetic production whose concern is not, according to director John Collins in the program notes, to translate Shakespeare’s moral and social “problems” for a modern audience but to render his richly layered language meaningful to a modern ear, without transcribing it into 21st century English. With the production clocking in at two hours and change, Collins and the ERS ensemble have obviously exercised some poetic license. Specifically, what they have done is stretch the text in some parts and, more often, compress it in others, sometimes running through scenes at a mean clip, using Jim Findlay’s white box set as a projection screen for the text, which scrolls by as if it were meant to be read by audiences as supertitles or by the actors as teleprompted lines (in fact, the actors read the script this way in rehearsal).
These choices are most evident in scenes involving the power trinity of the Duke (Shepherd’s phlegmatic pragmatist holds the production’s disparate elements together) and the lords Angelo (Pete Simpson, a schizoid schemer as the Duke’s standard bearer) and Escalus (a delightful Vin Knight). But these scenes are quickly dispatched as if the reasons for the power shifts Shakespeare creates are besides the point. Instead, Collins’ attention lingers on the plight of Claudio (a grave Greig Sargeant), whose arrest and death sentence for knocking up Juliet sets up the play’s central problem. Sargeant stands heavily in place, as if rooted to the spot by his chains and his fate, and he provides the production’s only note of gravitas. The play’s crucial argument between Claudio, pleading for his life on death row, and his sister Isabella (Rinnie Groff), a novice nun who could spring him from prison if she submitted to the advances of Angelo, presents a moral conundrum between the all-important “measure” of virginity for a woman’s place in society and the value of a human life. Today, it would be easy to speed through this Elizabethan teaser as a fact to be accommodated in the play’s construction. However, Collins slows the scene to a crawl; the actors face each other motionlessly from across a desk and carefully articulate every line. The pacing might have tested some spectators’ patience, but it focuses attention on the play’s crux: whether personal morality trumps a larger good.
On the other hand, the sexual dynamics between Isabella, Angelo and his scorned fiancee, Mariana (a severe April Matthis) – a source of dramatic tension with audience appeal – get short shrift here. Simpson plays Angelo as a sociopath and his proposition of sex in exchange for Claudio’s life is more a dispassionate whim – just because he can demand this – than a carnal craving.
Some of Shakespeare’s most difficult language in the play, full of puns, malapropisms and running commentary on the state of the nation, is spoken by the play’s comic minor characters Lucio, Mistress Overdone and Pompey (Mike Iveson, Susie Sokol and Lindsay Hockaday, respectively) and the dim-wit constable Elbow (Sokol again). Kaye Voyce’s outrageous accoutrements (visible theater prosthetics for Elbow, a motorcycle vest covered in beer patches for Pompey) exaggerate the comedy provided by this blow-hard bunch. In this not-quite tragedy that teeters at every moment on bald farce, Collins tips the scales firmly in the direction of the latter.
The rest of the cast exudes a 1940s film noir cool, in pinstriped double breasted suits for the men and smart black and white for the women. The ensemble gathers around a large wooden table, in what looks like the bare bones of a boardroom (Maggie Hoffman’s Provost wears an accountant’s green eyeshade). They sometimes communicate on turn-of-the-century desk-set phones, and the play’s more dramatic moments are set to a high-pitched score from the same cinematic genre.
These choices and the pacing can feel more capricious than meaningful, and sometimes flippant, as when the cast faints dead away at some of the revelations in the final act. In its first foray into Shakespeare, Elevator Repair Service takes its own measure of an inexhaustible oeuvre, choosing not a particularly translatable problem of morality but a very rich language. If the play’s title can be paraphrased as “you get what you give,” the company’s signature, experimental approach to text here yields a deliberately radical result that sometimes is right for the text, as when it delivers insight into the conflict between Claudio and Isabella, and sometimes seems more in the service of the company’s concerns but it does deliver a Measure for Measure for our satisfaction-driven, impatient, 21st century brains.
Measure for Measure runs at The Public Theater until 12 November. Click here for more details.