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