Measure for Measure: An Elevator Repair Service Going Down With No Music To Sooth the Ride.
I’ve heard such great things about the stylistic approach to text by the well-regarded Elevator Repair Service theatrical company, so I was obviously intrigued by there adventurous take on Shakespeare’s difficult ‘problem’ play, Measure For Measure at The Public Theater downtown. First gaining notoriety in 2006 with the epic Gatz, a six hour staging based on, and consisting of the entire text of Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby“, I remember being impressed while looking back now, wishing I had taken the leap of faith and bought a ticket. Not sure why I didn’t but I vaguely remember feeling overwhelmed by the idea and its length. Ben Brantley of the New York Times called it “the most remarkable achievement in theater not only of this year but also of this decade” but I guess it just wasn’t enough to outweigh the commitment (I wasn’t the theatre-junkie that I am today back then).
The ERS further established themselves as exciting experimentalists with their fresh recreation of the United States Supreme Court in Arguendo and the dark rendition of The Sound and the Fury . All of which I had the opportunity to see, but completely missed the boat for some reason. So now I have the chance, and the opportunity that this blog has given me. What remains though, is the question: how will they handle the text of the classic centuries-old play, Measure For Measure by William Shakespeare? It’s a daunting task. One, I’m sure, was not taken lightly by this thoughtful group and their fearless leader.
John Collins, the director of this production and the founder and artistic director of the company, took on this challenging project of bringing this renown ‘problem’ play to life after numerous discussions with the crew of ERS regarding the challenges and complex language of Shakespeare. They had a feeling that within the text there were far too many passages that are perceived as gibberish to our modern ear and sensibility. Causing, what he refers to as, a ‘disconnect’ between the written text and what hoops an actor must jump through to present these words to a modern audience. In an attempt to address this problem within this ‘problem’ play, Collins decided to direct his troop of actors to play around with pace and tone in order to bridge those un-required moments, and focus the attention on plot over clarity of dialogue. What they came up with in the end is an approach, that has various degrees of success, to rattle off lines at an alarming rate, turning them literally into gibberish. When not speed reading the lines, Collins took on a Hollywood screwball-style approach, with lines stylistically delivered in an over-the-top way that the text isn’t as accessible as what we are used to. What Collins and the actors hope in the final product is that these performative characterizations are seen and taken as amusing. One example is the foolish and annoying Lucio, played by Mike Iveson (Public’s Plenty). He saddles his text with a Jersey Shore drawl and deliveries it in such a way that negates the meaning. But sadly, as with most of their experimental ideas of ERS to Shakespeare, doesn’t quite deliver amusement or elicit chuckles, just a flatness prevails that falls heavy. Their tactics fail to engage, and causes the brain, well, at least my brain, to tune out.
The company wanted to do the play justice without relying on well-worn classical tactics, pace, and theatrical dynamics. One of the ideas attempted here is to have the actors utilize teleprompters throughout, fixing their eyes on the screen overhead, reading and delivering their lines directly, especially in moments of fast delivery. The idea, it seems, is to move quickly past the lines and passages that don’t hold a lot of drive or forward moving narrative. The surprising result is not one of amusement or even relief. Thankfully, the text is projected at numerous moments on the three walls and sometimes the floor for us all to see, which helped keep us on track. For all the speedy enactments and vaudevillian gestures, I found these moments dragged the production down, causing my ears and eyes to glaze over, tune out, and make each minute feel like five.
The biggest revelation thought, was that in reverse, when the delivery is slowed down to an excruciatingly glacial pace, there exists the closest thing to magic in the entire production. The pivotal scene, the one between Isabella (a very well-spoken and talented Rinne Groff) and Claudio (Greig Sergeant) in the prison discussing the immoral dilemma at the core of Measure For Measure is slowed down, and low and behold, that tactic caused the words to become pure, and the text more powerful. I can’t say it kept me leaning in for its entirety, but as a directional tool, it worked better then almost all the others. (For a much more fun romp through this immoral proposition, check out the musical, Desperate Measures at The York Theatre Company – click here for the review.)
This play is very timely though. It is about justice and hypocrisy, and the limits of government control on sexual desire. It feels that a lot of opportunities to relate these ideas to our current political climate were nixed. Instead, a visual style, created by set designer Jim Findlay, lighting by Mark Barton and Ryan Seelig, sound by Gavin Price, and costumes by Kaye Voyce, is reminiscent of the classic 1940’s film, “My Girl Friday“, with the quick tempo at the start feeling lively and exciting. Unfortunately, all that fun old-fashioned phone work initially employed flamed out quickly, leaving us to muddle through the confusing antics of this experimental production.
Besides the glorious Groff, April Matthis (Public’s Hollow Roots) as Mariana holds it together against all odds. Scott Shepherd (The Wooster Group’s Hamlet) as The Duke, Pete Simpson (Public’s Straight White Men) as Angelo, and all the rest energetically dive in and do their best within the theoretical framework established by director, Collins, but the slapstick movements and performances wear thin, almost as quickly as the lines delivered. It’s a long haul, over two hours with no intermission, to get to the end of this story. The problems that exist structurally in this play are not rectified, but still very present, with a few new ones added on.
Collins writes in the program notes of “a kind of music in those sentences and a deeply felt poetry that pulses with emotional truth”, and I agree whole-heartedly with that observation. That is the gloriousness of Shakespeare, but sadly, for the most part, that is what is lost in this strange, sometimes wonderful, circus-like production of Measure For Measure. It is a unique and cerebral approach, filled with wit and cleverness, and I applaud ERS for their bravery, their theoretical ideas, and their willingness to experiment. Unfortunately, the poetry and the musicality is erased, and we are left with a confusing chaotic mess that at moments feel too speedy for its own good, and deadly slow and dull at the same time. If you don’t know this play thoroughly and intuitively, and you didn’t see the seedy but fun production at TFANA earlier this year, read up on your Shakespeare before arriving, or you’ll find yourself dazed and confused, dreaming of the moment the teleprompter tells all to exit.