Measure for Measure
By David A. Rosenberg
Long Wharf’s “Measure for Measure” is the brainchild of the Fiasco Theater, which specializes in simplifying existing works (as it did with a striking version of “Into the Woods” off-Broadway earlier this year). One of Shakespeare’s so-called “problem plays,” along with “Troilus and Cressida” and “All’s Well That Ends Well,” it shares with those works an uneasy blend of flippant farce and dangerous drama.
In “Measure,” Duke Vincentio leaves the running of Vienna to Angelo, a religious demagogue with his own definition of righteousness. Citing existing law, he shuts down brothels and throws Claudio, a young nobleman, into jail, ordering his beheading for getting his fiance pregnant.
The Duke, wanting to spy on Angelo to find out how he would deal with the city’s split between permissiveness and piety, between brothels and churches, disguises himself as a friar. Meanwhile, Claudio’s rakish buddy, Lucio, visits a convent where Claudio’s sister, Isabella, is a novice.
Pleading with her to persuade Angelo to save her brother, Lucio arranges a meeting in which Angelo, despite his profession of sanctity, lusts for Isabella and promises freedom for Claudio if she will sleep with him. What to do? Save her brother’s life while losing her sacred virginity or let him die?
The lesson for today is clear. What happens when the wall between religion and the state is breeched? How to reconcile the human being’s yearning for both flesh and spirit? What happens when sanctimonious individuals fall from grace? In other words, “judge not that ye be not judged.”
Fiasco’s production emphasizes the play’s comedy not its puzzlements. Yet, on a stage mostly bare of furniture, where six different doors on casters provide the only background, the company makes up shortcomings with sprightly and enthusiastic performances.
Standing out are Emily Young as a feisty Isabella and a bawdy Mistress Overdone (what a name!) and Ben Steinfeld as Lucio. Steinfeld, who also co-directed, is a hoot with a heart.
Jessie Austrian is strong as Escalus, the Duke’s counselor; co-director Noah Brody is an empathetic Claudio; Paul L. Coffey is a stern Angelo. Only Andy Grotelueschen, as the Duke and Friar, disappoints. He garbles the language and lacks the charisma the play calls for.
Flawed but worthy, this “Measure” seconds author Alexandre Dumas, who desired nothing more for his plays than “four boards, two actors and a passion.”