Measure for Measure
By Brooks Appelbaum
The Fiasco Theater’s production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure provides yet another thrilling look at this company’s imagination, skill, and fresh approach to the classics. I first encountered this six-person troupe when they transformed the complicated and little-known Cymbeline into a lucid, streamlined, and often hilariously funny piece.
In Measure for Measure, running through December 20 at Long Wharf Theatre, the company uses similar techniques: a bare stage, subtle lighting, strong and committed characterizations, original songs, and double casting. While not entirely skirting the problems of this famously problematic play, co-directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld have chosen to present a more benign reading of each character and of the story as a whole.
The effect is curious. If you already know the plot, it’s a relief to sense, early on, that through judicious cutting, the characters have been made more sympathetic and the script more coherent than on the page. Afterwards, however, I found myself wishing that this Measure for Measure had been shaped to retain more of the original’s complexity and bite. However, this version holds its own in interpretations of the play, especially as a marvelous introduction for those new to this darkly complicated piece.
No matter how the script is cut, Measure for Measure snatches comedy from the jaws of tragedy at the last conceivable moment and early on introduces questions that remain unanswered. Vienna’s Duke (beautifully played by Andy Groteleuschen) has become disturbed by his own lax manner of ruling; in particular, he has winked at sexual misdemeanors that the city’s written laws would have him punish. Unwilling to seem suddenly unkind to his people, he puts Lord Angelo (Paul L. Coffey) in his place and charges him to rule by the book. The Duke also charges Lord Escalus (Jessie Austrian, charismatic and versatile) to aide Angelo in whatever he does. He then bids goodbye to Vienna; in reality, however, he disguises himself as a monk to watch what transpires and intervene where necessary.
Angelo, true to his reputation as harsh and unfeeling, instantly sentences to death young Claudio (the terrific Noah Brody) for impregnating the woman to whom Claudio is all but publicly engaged. Hearing this, Claudio’s sister, the soon-to-be nun Isabella (Emily Young, strong and feisty), pleads with Angelo for her brother’s life.
I won’t spoil the surprise of Angelo’s response, or untangle the knot that must be smoothed to make way for the requisite happy ending. I will say that the subplot involving Pompey, the pimp (Noah Brody, in a hilarious turn); Mistress Overdone, the Madame (Emily Young, now bawdy and sensuous); Elbow (Paul L. Coffey); and Froth (Ben Steinfeld) provides first-rate comedy without becoming tiresome, as some of Shakespeare’s subplots can.
Where the comic element of this production really shines is in Ben Steinfeld’s performance as Lucio, Claudio’s friend and a flamboyant troublemaker. Steinfeld comes as close to stealing the show as anyone could in this tightly knit ensemble, yet as director he carefully calibrates his brilliant turn to sparkle rather than to eclipse.
Yet this delightful interpretation of Measure for Measure loses some of the play’s necessary edge by softening both Angelo’s horrific coldness and his tortured introspection. As directed by Brody and Steinfeld, Coffey’s Angelo is neither as frightening, creepy, nor agonized as the character must be in order to keep the plot’s tension at its height. Emily Young’s Isabella, too, has been directed to play only a few notes, rather than exploring fully the confused, distressed, and -- in her own way -- cold-hearted young woman who should trouble us as Angelo’s mirror, as well as his opposite.
The technical elements of this production create an environment that is as stark and disturbing as one might wish, in addition to being beautiful. The set design, by Derek McLane, uses moveable doorways and only a few tables and chairs to make each scene flow into the next. The silvery lighting, by Christopher Akerlind, puts us in a cold and dangerous world; and the perfect costumes, by Whitney Locher, represent the best in minimalist theater.
Ultimately, the directors’ choices create a consistent balance between the dark story and the more than usually appealing characters. This Measure for Measure is certainly appealing, and it’s also a most welcome chance to see the work of The Fiasco Theater -- one of the finest young companies on the scene today -- in Connecticut and on the Long Wharf stage.
Measure for Measure runs through December 20. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.