Measure for Measure
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
June 28, 2011
You know something’s amiss from the opening moments—when a demon in S&M gear starts scurrying around the stage. Soon, it’s joined by a few more. Yet more appear, literally rising from hell, below the playing space, in bed with Vincentio, the Duke of a sexually-charged, Plague-worn Vienna. Within a few lines, the Duke has vacated his throne, albeit briefly, leaving his strict deputy Angelo to rule. Angelo’s first order? Stop the sex trade, and make fornication outside of marriage a crime punishable by death.
David Esbjornson’s production of Measure for Measure, in repertory with Daniel Sullivan’s All’s Well That Ends Well at the Delacorte Theatre, struggles to meld the modern and the Elizabethan, as well as the play’s comic and not-so-comic elements. The result is a heavy-handed and ultimately frustrating blend of hoopskirts and leather, electric guitars and solemn hymnals, with as many performances that don’t belong as ones that do.
First to be arrested for breaking the fornication rule is Claudio (Andre Holland), who has impregnated his fiancée Juliet (Kristin Connolly). He sends for his novice sister Isabella (Danai Gurira) to beg Angelo (Michael Hayden) for mercy, though Angelo soon finds himself lusting after her. Angela offers her a plea bargain: in exchange for her brother’s life, she must sleep with Angelo, but she is outraged and threatens to expose him to the town. Meanwhile, the Duke (Lorenzo Pisoni) has never actually left town, but disguised himself as a Friar, and soon begins trying to help Isabella save her brother, without giving up her virginity to Angelo.
The use of devils, presumably symbols of societal corruption, is a valid choice, though it’s abandoned early on. The rest is a fairly straightforward telling of the story. Esbjornson has problems finding the right tone for this problem play, and he chooses darkness over comedy, which makes the comic moments so out of touch with everything else.
The production’s greatest asset is Gurira, whose Isabella is meticulously slow-burning and conflicted. Particularly striking was the choice to cast the Duke as young and impetuous. While Pisoni is charming and handsome, he doesn’t provide much to his scene partners. Neither does Holland. Hayden fares very well, and his Angelo is one of the most detestable snakes you’re likely to encounter. Fine supporting turns are provided by John Cullum and Dakin Matthews (Escalus and the Provost), while the lovely Annie Parisse (Marianna), Tonya Pinkins (Mistress Overdone) and Connolly appear far too little.
Carson Elrod as the bawdy Pompey and Lucas Caleb Rooney as the prisoner Barnardine deliver first-rate comic performances, though neither of them actually fits with the tone Esbjornson presents. Reg Rogers acts too drunk in the comic role of Lucio, swaggering around the stage and slurring words.
Design-wise, the production is pretty, with Scott Pask’s looming set and Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting complimenting the surrounding world, Central Park (it’s especially beautiful if you have a view of Belvedere Castle, as I did, which added an interesting element to the text). Elizabeth Hope Clancy’s Elizabethan costumes are exquisite, though the fetish outfits are pretty standard to shop windows on Christopher Street.
It feels like an eternity to get to the play's final moments, when all is revealed and marriages are proposed, though the somber final image encapsulates everything Esbjornson was going for. His intent is commendable and his choices are some of the most daring Shakespeare in the Park has seen in years. If only they worked as a whole.