Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Measure for Measure

Theater for a New Audience's production of Measure for Measure, as directed by Arin Arbus, is crisp, clean, and totally unsurprising. It is, sadly, Shakespeare for Shakespeare, though Peter Ksander's cold-as-a-city-planned acre of stage and David Zinn's mostly modern dress would have you believe otherwise. More importantly, it's bad Shakespeare--what is already somewhat stilted given the more-and-more notable gaps in language is made even more artificial by the aimless plot. (Not for nothing do some scholars call this a problem play.) The straightforward approach taken here, in other words, is a mistake. 

Ironically, the play itself revolves around shaking things up: the soft-willed Duke (Jefferson Mays), loathe to apply the rod but knowing that he cannot continue to spare Vienna's citizens from it, pretends to leave, trusting that his deputy, Angelo (Rocco Sisto) will do the job for him. This leads to the brothel-running bawds of the city, like Mistress Overdone (Mary Testa, whose role is so limited that she ought to be called underdone), being jailed. As abuses of power go, it then extends to people like Claudio (LeRoy McClain) who have made the mistake of impregnating the women they love--in this case, Juliet (Rose Seccareccia)--before marrying them. In this topsy-turvy world, trouble-makers like Pompey (a wily John Keating) are promoted from prisoners to executioner's assistants, and criminals like Barnardine (Joe Forbrich) are permitted to refuse execution. Shakespeare offers no reason (some rhyme, though) for the constant blabbering of a rogue like Lucio (the terrific Alfredo Narciso), save that he understood (centuries before his time) the appeal of senseless entertainment. 

How to resolve these things, then, with the actual plot, in which the Duke, now disguised as a Friar, seeks to help Claudio's sister, Isabella (Elisabeth Waterston), free her brother without sacrificing her chastity to an admittedly less-than-pious Angelo? It hardly helps that Mays is rigid and humorless in his approach, nor that Waterston is so chaste and guileless in hers; they've both got energy to spare, but that's because they don't know what to do with it. Furthermore, with everyone defying orders left and right, particularly among the bawds, it's hard to believe in the consequences, no matter how well Escalus (a committed Robert Langdon Lloyd) sticks to them. Measure for Measure succeeds only when it is not taken seriously: for instance, Sisto is able to get away with Angelo's sudden reversal from saint to sinner by going all out, groping Isabella as much with his words as with his hands.

Nonsense only works in a professional setting if everyone carries it with a straight face, at which point it's (hopefully) satire. But Arbus is as inconsistent in her direction as Shakespeare is in his writing, and the result is a staging that intensely focuses on a play that is utterly without focus. This production of Measure for Measure is like taking your mother to a strip-club: wildly inhibiting.


RLewis said...

Isn't Arin a "she", not "he"? Either way, I guess we're not marching over to the armory next year with signs saying, "Our Shakes kicks your Shakes ass."

Aaron Riccio said...

Whoops. The hardest typo to catch.