Measure for Measure
nytheatre.com review by Heather Lee Rogers
December 6, 2010
Generally a show gets reviewed early in the run. However The Public's Measure for Measure (here for one week at historic Judson Church) has been playing for a couple weeks prior to my viewing. It has performed at four prisons, two homeless shelters, a center for the elderly in Jamaica, and for some at-risk high-school kids in Newark. Remarkably, the cast for this glamorous tour features an ensemble of eight excellent actors, whose bios boast professional credentials to rival any cast you'll find in Midtown's more expensive houses. These actors have appeared at The Public, on Broadway, and/or in America's finest regional theaters. This production kicks off the Public's new "Mobile Unit" initiative, an effort to get back to Joseph Papp's original mission for The Public Theater to make Shakespeare available to everyone.
The play is directed by Michelle Hensley, an innovative expert in bringing theatre tours to low-income and disenfranchised audiences in Minnesota to great national acclaim. Along with her humanitarian credentials, she also cooks up some lean, mean, thrilling Shakespeare. The ensemble is ethnically diverse and cast cross-gendered. None of the actors look like who you would usually see playing these roles. The doubling (most actors play multiple parts) is inspired and adds interesting nuance. For example: Shalita Grant (a short, curvy African American actress) plays Escalus (the Duke's senior advisor, a man's role) and also Juliette (Claudio's sweet betrothed whom he is imprisoned and sentenced to death for impregnating before wedlock.) Escalus is sympathetic to Claudio's plight and pleads for mercy towards him throughout the play as Juliette would do herself, had she the political access and power. The double-tongued, outwardly pious Angelo is played by the same actor (Rob Campbell) who plays Pompey (a pimp). Meg Gibson plays the Duke and brings to mind a quirky, stylish Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. Nicole Lewis as Isabelle is not the serene, indignant pillar of pale angelic beauty we expect. She is instead a desperate, vulnerable, normal looking, young woman—like you might see any day on the subway—totally accessible to a modern urban audience. In her first meeting with Angelo to save her brother's life when she finds herself at her wit's end with reason, she suddenly shrieks “Spare him! Spare him!” in a way that was truly gut-wrenching to hear.
Hensley sets the actors in the middle of the room at Judson Church, with audience in folding chairs on all four sides. Actors make entrances from the corner aisles, or reveal themselves from audience chairs. They make costume changes on the fly while dashing behind the audience to another corner for a quick re-entrance as another character. I tried to imagine what this would be like in a prison or with a non-theater-savvy audience. The lights remain up in the whole room, and the actors often speak to the audience directly. No curtains, no risers, no spotlights—we're all in the same room, on the same level, at the same time. The sound effects are often reminiscent of clanging bars and doors, all created (within plain view) by musician Jackie Sanders on a trestle of metal objects. The pace is fast and loose. The play feels shorter than its 2+ hours and I almost minded the intermission's interruption. The characters are fun, complex, and well-fleshed out. Many are tinged with American region-specific delivery. Carson Elrod and William Jackson Harper (with three characters each) are to be particularly commended for their detailed and hilarious character work.
I wish I could have seen how the play changed from its earlier performances. I wonder if some of the characters evolved as they played to certain audiences and if the bravery of the emotional journeys was transformed. In her brief preamble before the show, Hensley highlighted that Measure for Measure is a show that largely takes place inside a prison and that they had been playing specifically to people who had been subject to judgment, the play's central theme.
Measure for Measure is a difficult play to present to any audience. In a corrupt society, it grapples with matters of right and wrong, big sins versus little sins, punishment and mercy. The play oddly ends with more questions hanging than it answers. It's as if Shakespeare turned the mirror back on the audience's own society, asking us to decide if justice was served. How incredible to bring this show through the performances it has seen! I highly recommend seeing the fruits of this amazing journey for yourself, a high caliber and exciting production by any standard, for a mere fifteen bucks at Judson Church. Hurry before it closes on December 11th!