Friday, February 19, 2010

A Problem Play


Measure For Measure

A play by William Shakespeare

Directed by Arin Arbus

Starring Jefferson Mays, Katherine Waterston, Rocco Sisto, Mary Testa, John Keating

February 6-March 14, 2009
Theatre for a New Audience
The Duke on 42nd Street
229 West 42nd Street

One of the biggest problems with Shakespeare’s infamous “problem plays” is the difficulty in convincingly staging them. And that’s what Arin Arbus runs up against in her new production of Measure for Measure, one of the most problematic plays in the canon, which covers subjects that only Shakespeare would attempt to reconcile: faith and hypocrisy, tyranny and subjugation, mercy and injustice.

The Viennese Duke Vincentio pretends to leave the city on urgent business; instead, he disguises himself as a Friar to watch how his pious deputy, Lord Angelo, enforces the strict fornication laws about which Vincentio was lax. One of Angelo’s first moves is to condemn Claudio, whose crime was impregnating his fiancée, to death; when Claudio’s virtuous sister, Isabella, pleads for his life, Angelo agrees, under one condition: that she give up her virginity to him. Taken aback because her chastity is as important as her brother, Isabella is joined by the disguised Duke in a plot against Angelo that ends in three marriages, two of which are undesired but given as punishments.

Arbus’ modern-dress production demonstrates that hypocrites like Angelo—whose outward virtue is belied by his behind-closed-doors lust—are still on the political stage today, as if we needed reminding. Still, Arbus is never obvious about early 21stcentury America showing that Shakespeare remains relevant: if he was irrelevant, why perform his plays at all today?

Although the line of metallic doors at the rear of the stage portentously highlight the cold, puritanical tenor of the era, Arbus reveals—through her imaginative blocking of the actors on the mostly bare, black stage—an inventive use of theatrical space. Too bad, then, that her group of actors rarely rises up to the loftiness of Shakespeare’s poetry.

Smallish comedic roles are done pallidly, led by John Keating’s Pompey the clown, who has a heavy brogue and Sideshow Bob hairdo, and Mary Testa’s Mistress Overdone, who lives up (down?) to her name. Robert Langdon Lloyd’s nicely understated Lord Escalus and Alfredo Narcisco’s appropriately flamboyant Lucio at least speak the language well, which is more than one can say for Katharine Waterston, whose halting Isabella sounds like she’s desperately trying to remember what she’s supposed to say.

In the swan-like Waterston’s defense, Isabella is a difficult heroine to pin down: but erring on the side of naïveté or piety would be preferable to her one-note dullness. Similarly, Rocco Sisto’s Angelo has a tendency to bark out all his lines, whether or not the scene calls for it, thereby failing to convey his character’s dramatic arc. Sisto sounds impressive, but his acting isn’t.

Alone in making the play’s final reversals and couplings credible, Jefferson Mays quite effectively portrays Duke Vincentio as an intelligent leader who moves among his people to better take the pulse of his leadership—or lack thereof—something today’s politicians would be wise to heed. So, despite its bumpiness, Arbus’ Measure for Measure is able to modernize Shakespeare without sanitizing him.

originally posted on

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