"Measure for Measure" at Long Wharf

By Tom Nissley

Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” is not an easy play to share, and the Fiasco Theater’s production of the play that is visiting at Long Wharf for the holidays is living proof of some of its challenges. The story on the surface is simple. The Duke of Vienna appoints a rigid right-wing governor to take his place while the Duke travels. The new governor issues an order to tear down all brothels and make new attempts to upgrade marriage contracts. Like many politicians who have broadcast ideals regarding keeping marriage sacrosanct (the Playbill sagely details six ‘Politicians in Glass Houses’), this governor has a bad personal history of marriage habits, and in the course of the play he tries to force his affections onto a young woman who has already made vows in the convent. ...Ohhh...Bad Governor. Unfortunately for him, the Duke did not really travel, but went incognito into a nearby monastery, from which he could observe and keep check on what’s going on about town. So the good Duke returns, and arranges appropriate payoffs for all the bad deeds and less-bad deeds that have surfaced.

As presented by Fiasco, there are a number of weaknesses that quickly undermine the production. The first of these is projection of voices. The ensemble of six actors have well controlled voices. They demonstrate them by singing a beautiful canon just at the beginning and again at the end. But some of them, in particular, do not carry through with clear diction in speaking roles so that the words they are saying can be fully understood. Perhaps they would have been better off assigned to Long Wharf’s Stage II. At any rate, a portion of the story is left either to the imagination or to having studied the play carefully beforehand, and it seems overly casual for listening.

The casual approach is exaggerated by the costumes, which are placed somewhere between modern dress and suggested medieval dress. On the one hand I was appreciating Fiasco’s willingness to be contemporary and relaxed; on the other hand, I was wishing for more definition that would signal the stature of the Duke and the Governor, and there were moments when casual jeans slipping at the waistline just made it difficult to appreciate the implied costume above. I also suppose that if the actors involved were sufficiently intense with movement and dialect and diction, I could not have been so distracted, but the bottom line (pun intended) is that I easily was.

Fiasco is a project of graduates of the MFA program that is shared by Brown and Trinity. After my nitpicks I also want to throw same real appreciations for the cast, which works together so seamlessly, moving pieces of Derek McLane’s intriguing set – largely a number of doorways, in frames, on wheels, and several chairs and tables – making entrances and exits in a very timely manner, sharing or preparing accessories, etc. In that sense they are a very authentic reproduction of what Shakespeare’s players were probably like centuries ago. Compliments should extend to cover the worthwhile physicality of the cast, especially in the seamier moments or humorous ones. Noah Brody, a co-director who also inhabits the roles of Claudio and Pompey, has mastered, for instance, the pelvic thrust. Emily Young (Isabella and Mistress Overdone) is expert in movements and diction, and Ben Steinfeld, also a co-director, gave immense satisfaction in the role of the fickle Lucio.

I would encourage you to see the production just for the sake of tracking the process of politicians who have become radicalized Christians and how their zeal often runs amok. It’s possible that the wise judgement of the good Duke (here played by Andy Grotelusechen) will not set things straight as you watch the current crop pledging their innate goodness, but you can sympathetically enjoy how justice prevails in Shakespeare’s plot. “Measure for Measure” plays at Long Wharf through December 20. Tickets and Information at www.longwharf.org or by phone at 203-787-4282.

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