MEASURE FOR MEASURE is one of the more fascinating plays in the Shakespeare repertory, comedic in its structural attributes yet, it is thought, dark in tone, involving as it does an act of sexual blackmail to stop the execution of a young man for getting his girlfriend pregnant. But after seeing the Fiasco Theater’s rendition of the play at the New Victory Theater, I wonder if the idea of it as a difficult-to-classify “problem play” isn’t overblown. This is partly because Shakespearean comedy as a whole is full of injustice and humiliation, whether it is Hermia fleeing a death sentence in Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shylock stripped of his religion in Merchant of Venice, Malvolio abused in Twelfth Night, or – I could go on. The point is that most of the comedies are “problematic” if we assume that serious themes militate against a lightness of tone or an entertaining plot. Fiasco’s MEASURE FOR MEASURE is decisive in rejecting this assumption, letting the play be the comedy that it is, allowing its madcap incidents, and the naïveté of their resolution, to accentuate the ethical ambiguity of the action.
The actors are, in this respect, ingeniously double-cast: the chaste Isabella with the brothel keeper Mistress Overdone, the severe Angelo with the lackadaisical constable Elbow, the lowly Mariana with the wise counselor Escalus (normally played by a man, Jessie Austrian turns him into a Portia-like arbiter of justice), the sincere Claudio with the pimp Pompey, the talkative Lucio with the drunkard Froth. The set consists of doors that open and close on wheeled platforms, and co-directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld orchestrate a pace that won’t let us forget that the story, despite its ethical gravity, is on some level pure nonsense. Think about it. The Duke of Vienna hands his power over to a puritanical temp as a way of restoring the lax ways of the kingdom, then disguises himself as a friar to observe the disastrous result. When Angelo, the surrogate ruler, demands sex from Isabella, a novitiate nun, as a way of saving her condemned brother, Claudio, the Duke allows the situation to fester, preferring a convolution of plot to putting a swift end to the pain and fear he is responsible for creating. Along the way, he takes time out to entrap a hapless subject into making prosecutable remarks against his person. The whole unnecessary mess is resolved with a forced marriage and multiple last minute pardons, and, his desirability thus established, the Duke asking Isabella to marry him.
At that point in the Fiasco production, Emily Young, as Isabella, turns her nimble face to the audience, and smiles and smiles, in a way that says it all. Does Vincentio, the Duke, played with sly confidence by Andy Grotelueschen, who, if his beard were grizzled rather than auburn, might pass for Father Christmas, seriously expect to be so rewarded after the chaos he has wrought? Watching the pendulum swings of the production has been dizzying. Young’s smile slows it down and lets the ambiguities of the action settle, along with our thoughts, into an ironic, and temporary, repose.
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