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Measure For Measure



                                                     By Eugene Paul



When you’re invited early to the performance in order to brave the bowels of Mistress Overdone’s bordello to get to your seat – you’re meant to stare at the deliberately malodorous collection of treasured objects therein, from a wall art five foot penis to a less endowed masked loiterer in these desperately daring corridors –until you arrive at an immense banquet table framed with gaudy armchairs and furnished in tasty crockery and candelabra.  Turns out it’s actually the stage and your seats are to be found in the surrounding dim. Revelers at or on the table who appear to belong in the highest and lowest society equally tolerant intolerant of each other, consumed with appetite – rarely food –are all reveled out, among them, their monarch, the Duke of Vienna (Jonathan Cake), louche, disheveled, who shoots up and passes out.  The play has begun.


Thus, director Simon Godwin’s somewhat todayish conception; If you’re properly titillated, he has already done a bang-up job. If you’re confused, well, it’s Shakespeare’s confusions confounding you and there are plenty of them. Measure for Measure is one of the “problem plays” in the Shakespeare canon. It is the human comedy exacerbated.  Godwin picks his cues from the Bard and ratchets them up, pleasant or unpleasant, decadence amplified, as today, of course. The hungover Duke decides to take a respite from running his domain and turns over administration to friend Angelo (Thomas Jay Ryan) upright, uptight citizen of renowned probity. Telling no one, he is going to disguise himself as a wandering monk interacting with his subjects in order to find out what the hell is really going on.



 Making sense in the ensuing “problem” play is only partially Shakespeare’s responsibility, and the performers’ responsibility, the bulk of it is ours, the audience. Which makes it also the management’s responsibility: how to get audiences to the play and how to keep them there. It’s an ancient dilemma.  Shakespeare knew when he borrowed the original tragedy that a subsequent management had added the bawdyhouse characters to lighten the grisly plot for the benefit of the groundlings, the bulk of Elizabethan audiences. Shakespeare kept the lowlifes for their raw vigor and underscored their connection to the decadent high society of Vienna, their mutual hypocrisy, their corruption, their venality.  We’re meant to get a sense of that as we wended our way through Mistress Overdone’s whorehouse, all part of director Godwin’s design. We’re meant to become participants.


Wherefore, let us found ourselves. What is going on in the play’s terms?  Once Angelo is made ruler in place of the absent Duke, he clamps down on Vienna’s vices.  He bans the bawdyhouses, resurrects ancient laws making fornication  punishable by death and as an example sentences Claudio (Leland Fowler) to death for impregnating his wife-to-be, Juliet. When Claudio’s sister, Isabella, (Cara Ricketts)  a novitiate nun, begs Angelo for her brother’s life, model citizen Angelo offers to free Claudio if Isabella will surrender her virginity to him. Shock,, enraged, she refuses. Claudio is doomed.  He begs her to save his life, but she cannot bring herself to this special iniquity.


The disguised Duke overhears this scabrous tale, of course, as well as several other tawdry recountings from prisoners scooped up in Angelo’s raids detailing crimes, corruptions and debauchery.  The Duke, now known as the friar Lodowick, comes up with his own devises to correct these ills. We won’t go into the substituting of chopped off heads or the switching of bodies in beds but rest assured, all’s well that ends well.  Er, no, wrong play.  Measure is taken for measure.  There is only one problem left:  yours. In spite of designer Paul Wills’  stunning scenery and a sprawl of variety costuming, of swirls of lighting by Matthew Richards, coils of sound by Jane Shaw, Cookie Jordan’s makeup , Eric Reynolds’ props, you’re outside.


You are never involved.  The play has never caught you.  Despite moments of anguished appeal, Isabella, the character most likely to touch you, to reach you, just does not, no matter splendid actress Cara Rocketts’s fine efforts.  Her character is mortally flawed.  This paragon of virtue will not (a) surrender said virtue to save her brother’s life, (b) lies about Angelo taking her virginity in order to (c) blackmail him. Every other character is similarly flawed, but director Godwin, instead of  taking that as the cue to holding the mirror up to us, flaunts his furbelowed production for us to admire. Oh, we do, we do.  Although the Duke’s brilliant brainstorm wrapping up the play,  ordering  everyone to get married,  does not necessarily sit well with the characters or the audience.  Okay. It’s Shakespeare. But there’s that  niggling gnaw of disappointment.


Measure for Measure. At the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn.  Tickets: $85-$95. 866-811-9111. 2hrs 30 min, thru July 16.