Measure for Measure
nytheatre.com review by Russell M. Kaplan
July 30, 2009
[Note: For a plot summary of Measure for Measure, check out Sparknotes.]
I wasn't able to get Shakespeare in the Park tickets this summer, but it was pretty easy to find a seat at TheDrillingCompany's downtown riff on that summer theatre staple, a Shakespeare in the Park(ing) Lot production of Measure for Measure. Performed faithfully by a reasonably appealing but uneven cast, it's a distinctive New York experience you'll enjoy being able to say you were a part of. As a play, it may leave you somewhat unfulfilled.
Measure is often mislabeled as one of the "problem comedies," mostly based on the fact that it's just not that funny. Of course, I happen to love Measure for exactly that reason. What it lacks in the obvious gags of Shakespeare's other comedies, it makes up for with remarkable depth of character, displaying moral ambiguities and a social agenda that paved the way for the best modern dark comedies. It's a worthwhile trade-off for an astute play that holds up surprisingly well.
It's also those built-in subtleties that make this an extraordinarily difficult play to nail, and this production unfortunately doesn't find the layers necessary to make it satisfying. The actors range from somewhat impressive to merely passable, and while no bad apples spoil the bunch, there are no particular standouts either. The best in the lot are Ivory Aquino as Isabella, the young nun with a brother on death row, and Mark Jeter as Angelo, the young tyrannical ruler who offers the brother a pardon in exchange for Isabella's virginity. There are also fine moments by Nina Burns as Mistress Overdone and David Marantz as Lucio. But even the standouts occasionally fall into a broad comedy style that fails to tell the story clearly. Though the cast does not always appear to be on the same page, director Hamilton Clancy should be given credit for his intelligent choice to place the play in a 1950s Southern community, where the atmosphere of oppressive bible-thumping and governmental corruption fits like a glove. It would be a great concept to exploit more fully in a more controlled space.
In fact a better space might have done a lot to save this production. Unlike much of the outdoor summer theatre I've seen, the urban setting does the production more harm than good. Car horns beep, pedestrians wander by, trucks backfire. And since the space isn't utilized in a particularly innovative or site-specific way (there's no reason this production simply HAD to be in a concrete lot downtown), the urban elements don't enhance the experience...they are simply distractions. One hopes that TheDrillingCompany will, in the future, make a point of really using the environment to their advantage. Or at least find a quieter lot.