Measure Still for Measure

One of the wonderful benefits of living in New York is the wide availability of theatre and other cultural events. Of course, my particular interest being Shakespeare, I have easy access to live productions of his work, and if I decide to see a play on a particular evening, I often have my choice of Shakespearean fare. On rare occasions, I have the opportunity to see two different productions of the same play on the same day. This is a special treat, because watching two different interpretations of the same text back-to-back illuminates the choices made by each individual production, and draws out the essentials of the play itself.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to see two productions of one of my favorite plays, Measure for Measure, both in the East Village. I saw a production staged by the Guerrilla Shakespeare Project at the Under St. Marks theatre at 2pm, and a second production staged by the New York Neo-Classical Ensemble at the La Plaza Cultural park at 7:30. Both shows were effective at reaching a small audience who might not be familiar with the play, though they did so in very different ways.

Jacques Roy, directing the Guerrilla Shakespeare Project production, masterfully stripped the play down to its barest elements. The space was a tiny Black Box set-up, and the set consisted only of a few vertical bars that looked like they belonged there, a spool-shaped stool, and about twenty feet of rope that was used in a variety of inventive ways, from defining the space to threatening a hanging. The script was also stripped down so only the main storyline was depicted. Only seven characters survived the cut. As it turned out, that was all that was needed to really tell the story. Gone were Mistress Overdone, Barnardine, Juliet, and Elbow the Constable. The role of Escalus was expanded slightly to absorb the Provost and a few other functional roles, but otherwise only Claudio, Lucio, Mariana, Angelo, Isabella, and the Duke were needed. The cast was fantastic across the board. Kelby T. Akin and Diana Buirski were outstanding in those all-important scenes between Angelo and Isabella, and Tom Schwans absolutely stole the show as Lucio. For me, though, the real stand-out was Kimiye Corwin as Mariana. For me to watch a show I’ve seen a dozen times and feel like I’m watching it for the first time is the greatest compliment I can give, and her performance did that for me. Unfortunately, I saw the final performance, so I’m unable to send you to see it, but this is a company I’d like to keep an eye on in the future.

The New York Neo-Classical production was a free outdoor performance, and it was a beautiful night for it. Under the direction of Steven Stout, the production was very broad and presentational. It felt like it was staged for a much larger arena than the four-leveled stone steps where we were sitting. It occurred to me that this style must have been very much like the original staging of the play in Shakespeare’s time. The production played up the slapstick elements of the play, and the audience was well-entertained. Even the small children who were playing on the steps throughout the performance would pay attention to the action from time to time. Richard Douglass and Ariana Venturi as Angelo and Isabella were able to sustain the more serious moments of the play. She seemed very young, and he looked like he had a good ten years on her, but that just highlighted her innocence and made his advances all the creepier. Also worth mentioning are Michael Bartelle as a more proactive Escalus than I’ve seen before, and Danielle Levanas, who played a number of minor roles (such as Juliet, Froth, and the Servant) but never let you forget she was on stage.

I love this play, but there are certainly problems with it, and one of the really fun things about yesterday was watching how each production dealt with a particular problem in keeping with its own production concept. One good example is the scene where the Duke (disguised as a friar) tries to convince the Provost to postpone Claudio’s execution. After an extended debate, the Duke realizes he’s not getting anywhere and says “Yet since I see you fearful, that neither my coat, integrity, nor persuasion can with ease attempt you, I will go further than I meant, to pluck all fears out of you. Look you, sir; here is the hand and seal of the duke: you know the character, I doubt not, and the signet is not strange to you.” So where did the letter come from? Obviously he wrote it, but if he had it all this time, why go through all of the debate? Roy handled this by eliminating the letter. When the Duke said “Look you, sir; here is the hand and seal of the duke,” he removed his cowl, revealing his identity and creating a very entertaining theatrical moment. In Stout’s much sillier production, the Duke actually turns his back to the Provost and writes the letter in full view of the audience. He then turns back to the Provost, who hasn’t noticed the long pause, and presents the letter.

Another troubling moment of the play is at the very end. After everything has been resolved, the Duke propositions Isabella, which to a modern audience is completely inappropriate after all that she’s been through. I expressed the same problem with the ending in my lipogram summary. In Stout’s production, the Duke delivers these lines quite cavalierly, and scampers off, leaving the rest of the cast on stage slackjawed and dumbfounded by the suggestion. Roy’s solution was simple: he just cut the lines.

As I said, the Guerilla Shakespeare Project production is over, but the New York Neo-Classical production is just getting started. If you like your Shakespearean comedy writ large, it’s well worth checking out.

3 Responses to “Measure Still for Measure”

  1. Charlene Says:

    Are you going to catch Merchant of Venice at BAM? It closes this weekend. It is an excellent, highly intelligent production.

  2. Bill Says:

    Welcome, Charlene!

    Yes, I am planning to see it this weekend. I saw the Propeller productions of Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew and was blown away by them both, even if I didn’t blog about them. I’ll have to be more diligent this time.

  3. Ginger Says:

    Howdy! The Guerrilla Shakespeare Project is bringing KING JOHN to the Medicine Show this spring. It’s the next chapter in our season of rarities (following 2NK, which was a big hit in January). We run May 6 to 23, 2010. We’d love to have you there. It’s going to be bloody good (pun intended). Thanks so much for writing about Measure. Let me know if you’d like to bring students, we could do a talkback or something.

    (Sorry for posting instead of emailing you, but I can’t track down your address.) Feel free to email me directly.

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