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Measure for Measure

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 10, 2017

Rinne Groff and Members of the Company
Photo by Richard Termine

Warning: If you are not familiar with Shakespeare's Measure for Measure before attending Elevator Repair Service's wildly inventive and often thrilling production at the Public Theater, I can pretty much guarantee you will leave without any more understanding than you came in with. So do your homework, and brush up your Shakespeare before entering this tempo-distorting whirlwind that offers up both giddy slapstick and serious ruminations on themes of morality, justice, corruption, and the plight of women in a man's world.

Judging by some of the props and Kaye Voyce's costumes, the production would seem to be taking place in a boardroom or government office circa 1940. Jim Findlay's scenic design incorporates several tables set up in a U-shape. On each table is an old-fashioned candlestick phone, and lying about are a several remote control devices which, when punched, alter the speed of the action. To get a sense of what to expect, imagine that you have gotten your hands on a DVD of the play, but you want to focus on certain scenes. What do you do? You fast forward through the sections you are less interested in, and you slow down when you get to the ones you want to study more closely. This is exactly how the company approaches the play, and how it is that they can bring it in with a running time of a little over two intermissionless hours.

What we zip through (and don't expect to understand a word while this is happening) are scenes of exposition that take on a "yadda yadda yadda" quality as the cast moves about at breakneck speed. Also accelerated are many of the comic parts, so that much of the action featuring Shakespeare's clowns, bawds and drunkards gives the production the look of a period madcap comedy, an altogether silly romp. But if you think of these as director John Collins's "smoke and mirrors" and pay close attention, you'll find an underlying thoughtful examination of the play's deeper themes.

Taking pride of place for the probing of those themes is the character of Isabella (Rinne Groff, giving a most compelling and layered performance). Isabella is a novice to a religious order of nuns who is placed in an untenable position of either saving her brother's life or saving her own virtue. Dressed modestly but fashionably in black, Ms. Groff gives us an Isabella who is a complex mixture of helplessness and fatalism on the one hand, and determination and bravery on the other. When she has something to say, you can bet she'll slap that remote, slow things down, and insist that we listen.

The most potent occurrence of this comes when Isabella meets with her brother Claudio (Greig Sargeant) in the prison where he awaits execution for the crime of fornication, a transgression and penalty that have only recently begun to be enforced by the temporarily-appointed governor of Vienna, the unbending Angelo (Pete Simpson). Angelo, who his running things in the absence of the Duke (Scott Shepherd), has already rebuffed Isabella's pleas on behalf of Claudio. But he has held up the possibility of a pardon if she will succumb to his own sexual desires and give up her virginity to him. The siblings' drawn-out and pained conversation takes place as they sit across from one another, speaking their carefully chosen words into those candlestick phones. Their mutual anguish is exposed as they strive to find a way to get through this deeply emotional moment of weighing the implications of whatever decision Isabella makes.

This and other scenes featuring Ms. Groff are the dramatic high points of the production, but there are others in the cast who manage to stand out among the high-speed shenanigans. In particular, Vin Knight is a marvel at capturing the character of Angelo's right-hand man, the judge Escalus. Angelo might sit at the top in the Duke's absence, but it is Escalus who is taking care of the day-to-day business. By design, you lose the details, but Mr. Knight creates a singular character out of what remains of his role. He is often red in the face as he deals with those who a brought before him, assorted miscreants including the malaprop-spewing constable Elbow and the brothel owner Mistress Overdone (both well played by Susie Sokol). The plotline that follows the absent Duke as he pretends to be a friar is also handled quite well as it wends its way to the play's neatly tied-up ending.

Truly, if the entire cast and the timing of the performances were not so carefully aligned, the entire enterprise would implode on itself and wind up as nothing more than a clever piece of gimmickry. The comedy is spun to the height of ridiculousness, and at a sacrifice to Shakespeare's language. But the situation that Isabella, Claudio, and the minor characters find themselves in, where mercy and justice have been shunted aside in favor of absolutism, calumny and corruption, stands out in bold contrast. Elevator Repair Service has pulled off a remarkable feat here by using the pacing of the play in support of delineating its serious intent. If Measure for Measure remains a "problem play," here, at least, is one way to approach solving it.

Measure for Measure
Through November 12
LuEsther Hall at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: