Entertainment » Theatre

Measure for Measure

by Rob Urbinati
Thursday Aug 8, 2019
Katherine Renee Turner in "Measure for Measure," which plays through August 24 at the Duke on 42nd Street.
Katherine Renee Turner in "Measure for Measure," which plays through August 24 at the Duke on 42nd Street.  

Voice-overs of reporters discussing contemporary political issues blare from the speakers at the start of The Acting Company's trimmed-down production of "Measure for Measure," locating one of Shakespeare's "problem plays" squarely in the here and now, and in the #MeToo era. One of the most surprising consequences of the current political climate is the opportunity it provides for fresh directorial perspectives on classic plays and musicals such as "Tartuffe," "The Taming of the Shrew," "Carousel," "My Fair Lady" and others. These newly-challenging works have not been abandoned by theatre companies, rather, they are being explored from fresh perspectives.

Angelo (Sam Lilja) is placed in charge of Vienna when the Duke (Keshav Moodliar) pretends to leave town. Promptly, he has Claudio (Lorenzo Jackson) arrested for impregnating his lover Juliet (Katherine Renee Turner), imprisons her, and sentences Claudio to death. Isabella, Claudio's sister, (Rebekah Brockman), a devout novice, begs Angelo for mercy, and in a Weinstein-like tactic, propositions her, offering to set her brother free if she will have sex with him.

Disguised as a friar, the Duke keeps a watchful eye on these events, and steps in with a clever, typically Shakespearean plot to assist Isabella, save Claudio's life, and expose Angelo's abuse.

The sparse, structural set (by Neil Patel) consists of an imposing wall with steps leading to an upper level; and the handsome contemporary costumes by Jessica Wegener Shay are monochromatic. Indeed, it's a gray world the characters in this production inhabit. In the play, Angelo is rabid in his desire to rid Vienna of licentiousness and enforce old laws prohibiting non-marital sex. But the "low characters" and the brothels where the "unholy" behavior runs rampant have been mostly excised from the production, which eliminates nearly all the comedy, with the exception of Lucio's (Anthony Bowden) wily antics.

The extensive cutting of the play's many sub-plots (the production runs ninety minutes, without intermission) is effectively executed, and what remains of the story is efficiently rendered. The ornate language is well-spoken by the entire cast, under the guidance of Voice & Speech Consultant Deborah Hecht. The contemporary touches such as cellphones, reporters, and microphones are clear and unobtrusive, and director Janet Zarish and the ensemble are careful not to overly demonize or exalt any of the characters.

But the production and the performances lack depth. The company goes about its business purposefully, but there is little anguish or despair, despite the high stakes. The actors seem peeved, rather than enraged or tormented.

The Acting Company production at The Duke encourages parallels with recent events; the climactic trial clearly conjures up the Kavanaugh hearings. But even this scene is not as powerful or persuasive as it should be. What's lacking is the full weight of the moral quandaries in which the characters find themselves, and the life or death consequences they face.

The unusual staging of a potentially powerful moment at the end of the play, when the Duke proposes to Isabella, is supported by Shakespeare's text, but not sufficiently explored earlier in the production to make the moment impactful. While the action in this brisk rendering of "Measure For Measure" is taut and engrossing, the psychological complexity of the characters is under-explored. The production is tight; but it only scratches the surface of this rich play, with its timely themes of women's autonomy, hypocrisy, injustice, and mercy.

"Measure for Measure" continues through August 24 (in rep with "Native Son") at The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 W 42nd St, New York, NY. For more information, visit the Acting Company's website.

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