Measure for Measure

Theatre for a New Audience

By: - Jul 07, 2017

Measure for Measure
byWilliam Shakespeare
Directed by Simon Corwin
Theatre for a New Audience
Polonsky Shakespeare Center
Brooklyn, New York
through July 16, 2017
Photos courtesy Theatre for a New Audience

Measure for Measure, Shakespeare’s romantic comedy with dark undertones of the Sermon on the Mount, is marvelously produced at the Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn.

The play is thrust at us, literally. The infinitely adjustable Polonsky Center stage is like a wide banquet table, decorated with bouquets of balloons at the play’s opening. For an audience in the comfortably raked stadium seating and looking down at the stage, other audience members, seated around the stage/table, appear to be guests. They are treated with flags and other goodies as the play progresses. Yet they are audience.

Staging is background to the engaging performers directed by Simon Godwin. We are made to feel that far more is happening than happens. Executions, rapes and so on, planned for the next day, never seem to come, but still rouse anxiety.

Godwin has succeeded not only in bringing this play to us, up close and personal, but in bringing the moral complexity it presents into clear focus without banging us over the head. Instead lively musical settings of some of Shakespeare’s sonnets engage us. Merritt Janson, one of characters who is disguised during the course of the play’s events, is part of the musical group.

Disguise is at the heart of the play. The Duke, in a brilliant dual-role performance by Jonathan Cake, leaves town to allow his deputy, Angelo, presumed to be a man of high moral character, to take his place. The Duke hopes that in his stead Angelo will bring the populace of Vienna to their penitential knees. The Duke wants to effect a stricter morality, but needs to hand it off to his apparently less complex yet firmer ally.

Angelo gets to work quickly. The malleable face and slumped shoulders of Thomas Jay Ryan in this tormented role perfectly capture the man who initially presents as suffocatingly pure. Ryan slowly erodes his supposed high-mindedness into Angelo's hypocrisy, which is hidden even from him.  A deep conflict, not sensed by the deputy, makes him incapable of judgement.

After enforcing an archaic law which will hang a man, Claudio, who has entered into consensual sex, Angelo finds himself alone in his offices with Claudio's sister, a nun-in-training Isabella.  He is turned on by her virtue and attempts to brutally seduce her.  Ryan shudders as he is overcome by sexual depravity. The role epitomize the upright enforcer who is thoroughly, but sadly, corrupt. 

What a difficult role Isabella’s is. Cara Ricketts is lovely in a habit graciously designed by Paul Wills, to whom the set is also credited. Ricketts so treasures her virginity that she is unwilling to sacrifice it to save her beloved brother Claudio from beheading. Confronting Claudio, who begs her to temporarily give up her body to save his life, she caves to a pseudo-moral vision.

At times, Isabella is egged on from the sidelines to make her case with more conviction and feeling. The ice queen will melt at the conclusion. Ricketts makes the subtle and then not so subtle conflicts in the intendant nun delicately clear.

The Duke, now disguised as Friar, is learning lessons from the real life he can now anonymously observe. His notions about what it means to be among God’s elect become much less sure and his compassion grows as the play unfolds.

This is in no small measure accomplished by the low-lifes providing a second tier of action. Elbow, Pompey and Mistress Overdone are lusty and often truthful, as is the Lucio.   Lucio as portrayed by Haynes Thigpen is a paradoxical character. He doesn’t speak a true word in the play, and yet his lies and distortions shape themselves into a kind of truth. Through him the Duke advances to self knowledge.

Measure for Measure is a romantic comedy, ending in the union of the Duke and a prospective nun with other nuptials pending. Yet it is an odd romantic comedy, propelled by the Sermon on the Mount. Director Corwin and his team make the message contemporary. The play comes as close to being timeless as any of the Bard’s works. Jane Shaw’s music, Corwin’s staging, the set and costumes by Paul Wills and so many lively performances make this an evening of very special Shakespeare.