Measure for Measure
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
February 14, 2010
On the heels of her triumphant production of Othello last season, director Arin Arbus makes her return to the Duke on 42nd Street and Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA) with Measure for Measure, one of Shakespeare's three notorious "problem plays." Hit-makers will always have the somewhat disappointing show that "came next," and Arbus is no exception. It's good to see Measure for Measure, but it doesn't reach the heights of Othello.
For all intents and purposes, Arbus sets this Measure in the present, with business-attire costuming (by David Zinn). The Duke of Vienna decides to take leave for a short time and puts Angelo, his number two, in charge, to rid the Gomorrah-like land of its debauchery and sin. Angelo's first item of business is to order the execution of Claudio, who has impregnated a woman to whom he is not married. Naturally, however, rulers are no better than the townspeople, and Angelo decrees to Claudio's sister Isabella that the only way to spare his life is for Angelo to take her virginity. The Duke, meanwhile, has been keeping tabs on all of them, disguised as a Friar.
Credit must be given to Arbus for the clarity of the plot. This is one of the easiest-to-follow productions of a Shakespeare play I've ever seen. And she has assembled an estimable cast, starting with Jefferson Mays (as the Duke), Rocco Sisto (as Angelo), and Elisabeth Waterston (as Isabella). The latter two are disappointingly one-note and colorless; the whole production slows down and becomes dull whenever they're on stage.
The supporting players help add color, even though this play (and production) are as dark as can be (lighting Marcus Doshi; set by Peter Ksander). John Christopher Jones and John Keating are utter delights as the dimwitted police constable Elbow and Pompey the clown, respectively (and it gets even funnier when Jones becomes Abhorson, the executioner, and Keating's Pompey becomes his apprentice). Mary Testa is uncharacteristically demure as Mistress Overdone, the bawd. Robert Langdon Lloyd has nice moments as Escalus, one of the lords.
But it is Mays who makes this production. He is positively electric as he lights up the proceedings. And once again, he proves why he is one of the finest actors we have today. It's just unfortunate that Sisto and Waterston aren't up to his standard (as they have been in past performances I've seen of theirs.)
Ultimately, though, this Measure for Measure is worth seeing. Credit must be given to Theatre for a New Audience for putting up a Shakespeare play that isn't Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, or A Midsummer Night's Dream (the recent NY Shakespeare Festival choices). I'd rather see a slow yet respectable production of a play I've never seen before, than a retread, no matter how good it is.