Taking Good Measure of Shakespeare

By Geary Danihy

Some say it’s a comedy, others a problem play, but whatever label you give it, “Measure for Measure” is pure Shakespeare, and in the Fiasco Theater’s production, currently showing at Long Wharf Theatre, it is as bright and engaging as it probably was when first boarded at the turn of the seventeenth century.

The emphasis here is on the actors, for the set, designed by Derek McLane, consists of just six doors, mounted on casters, doors that are wheeled about by the six actors playing multiple roles to establish the various scenes. Costumes, by Whitney Locher, are basic, and the lighting by Christopher Akerland is expressive but not overly dramatic.

Thus, if falls upon this extremely talented ensemble to create the world of Vienna circa 1600, when the Duke (Andy Grotelueschen) decides to take a busman’s holiday, leaving the running of the duchy to Angelo (Paul L. Coffey), a man of great probity who believes in strict adherence to the rules of law, one of which condemns fornication. Alas, Claudio (Noah Brody) has gotten his intended pregnant, and for this Angelo condemns him to death, much to the concern of Escalus (Jessie Austrian), a Justice. In an attempt to save him, Lucio (Ben Steinfeld), a libertine and frequenter of the local bawdy houses, seeks out Claudio’s sister, Isabella (Emily Young), who is about to take her vows as a nun, and urges her to beg Angelo to pardon her brother. Of course, complications ensue, all resolved by marriages bitter, sweet and…well…tentative.

There’s been a lot of cutting and splicing here, as often occurs when one of the Bard’s plays is staged today, but no harm is done -- the play’s essential message stands intact: those in power who would judge others must themselves be judged by their actions.

As is often the case when viewing one of Shakespeare’s plays, it takes a few minutes to adjust to the rhythm and syntax of the prose, but once the ear and the mind shed their twenty-first century focus and expectations, you could easily be standing in an inn-yard watching the play as pickpockets and pie-men wander about.

This is a vigorous production, powered by some very fine performances. Chief among them is Young’s portrayal of Isabella (she also plays Mistress Overdone, the owner of one of the bawdy houses). Her plea for leniency before Angelo and her subsequent condemnation of him in the final scenes are powerful pieces of acting. It is, however, Steinfeld who almost steals the show, for as Lucio he wittily brings to life a man whose morals are made to fit the occasion, whatever the occasion might be.

Then there is Grotelueschen as the Duke, who disguises himself as a friar to observe the goings-on in the land he rules, and thus provides many opportunities for dramatic irony, especially in his scenes with Lucio.

Yes, this is condensed Shakespeare, but the Fiasco Theater ensemble captures the essence of the play, and the staging by Brody and Steinfeld creates a non-stop energy and interaction that holds the audience’s attention throughout.

There is, however, a flip-side to this Shakespeare-lite production. It was, at least for one observer, sometimes difficult to enter into the world of the play. Given the staging, one is never too far away from realizing that these are actors performing roles. That may have been the point. If so, it occasions a slightly schizophrenic experience. Are we watching Isabella or are we watching Young portray Isabella? The experience is akin to having a view of the inside of the magician’s hat to see where the rabbit is hidden.

It’s obvious that there is an overriding concept to this production and as such, it is successful. For some, the concept may distract from the story Shakespeare set out to tell; for others, it creates an Elizabethan romp. Either way, Fiasco Theater’s interpretation is entertaining and, at moments, mesmerizing, no more so than when the Duke sheds his religious garb and reveals himself -- it’s a delightful, visually comic moment (thanks, especially, to Steinfeld’s Lucio, who, caught in lies and calumnies, simply doesn’t know which way to turn).

At just over two hours, this “Measure for Measure” is ideal for those who consider themselves Shakespeare-averse. Yes, purists might say this is bare-bones Bard, but in sanctifying the plays we often lose sight of the fact that they were meant to be staged before a somewhat rowdy audience whose attention span was challenged by all that was going on about them. Say what you will about this interpretation, it holds your attention.

“Measure for Measure” runs through December 20. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.

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