What Measure Ye Mete

Before the play begins, the actors walk onstage to mill around and greet the audience.  Andy Grotelueschen nods his head and beams before bumming a mint from someone in the front row.  “James, my cousin is sitting behind you!” he calls out to a man he recognizes.  “Hi, Becky!” squeaks Jessie Austrian, using her hand to shield her eyes from the lights.  This, of course, is not unlike the way another recent Shakespearean production was framed, with a view of the actors before they inhabit their roles.  And since Measure for Measure is greatly concerned with performing and representing and seeming, it is not wholly inappropriate.  Directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, however, decide to repeat this little entr’acte after intermission, which should indicate the general tone of the production; just as they did with Cymbeline, the Fiasco Theater has decided to take one of the Bard’s darker works and transform it into an ordinary comedy.

A synopsis of the text should help to illustrate why this is a problem: the Duke Vincentio of Vienna (Mr. Grotelueschen) decides to briefly abdicate his position, as he has lost all control over his lecherous population and wants to spy on them while dressed as a common friar.  He appoints the strict but hypocritical judge Angelo (Paul L. Coffey) to rule in his absence, who quickly sentences Claudio (Noah Brody) to death for impregnating his fiancée.  Through the help of his friend Lucio (Ben Steinfeld), Claudio enlists the help of his sister, the novice nun Isabella (Emily Young), to plead his case, but Angelo insists on a sexual quid pro quo in return for his leniency; this villain almost succeeds, too, if not for the famous “bed trick,” in which he is lead to believe he is having sex with Isabella when in fact it is Mariana (Ms. Austrian), a former spurned lover of his, who has been offered up for Claudio’s freedom.

Measure for Measure is most famous for its final scene, in which the Duke, who has orchestrated much of the action while disguised as the friar, proposes to Isabella, who does not answer him.  Directors traditionally read this as an acceptance (silence equaling consent in Shakespearean England) but has more recently been revealed as a rather troubling scene.  Vincentio, after all, refers to Mariana as a “nothing” as she is “neither maid, nor widow, nor wife” and then forces Angelo to marry this nothing, implying that matrimony with her is a form of punishment.  Most bizarrely, while still dressed as a friar, he lies to Isabella and tells her that Claudio is dead, extending her misbelief beyond any justifiable length: there is a cruelty to his desire to reap the pleasures of dramatic irony that is not supported by the narrative.  Isabella herself is no saint (though she is called one), and her dedication to purity suggests a masochistic chastity that, in Vienna, may in fact be the safest form of sexual release.  “Were I under the terms of death,” she says, “Th’impression of keen whips I’d wear as rubies, / And strip myself to death as to a bed / That longing had been sick for, ere I’d yield / My body up to shame.”

It is no surprise, then, that Coleridge called Measure for Measure “a hateful work” that is “the single exception to the delightfulness of Shakespeare’s plays.”  Though I am not entirely in agreement with this evaluation, Fiasco’s production has trimmed or ignored all the messy parts of this comedy, all the complicated investigations of sexuality and power that would provoke this strong a reaction.  Admittedly, there are some successes.  It is interesting, for example, that Ms. Young is cast both as the brothel owner Mistress Overdone and as Isabella, indicating that their sexual extremes are polar but similar responses to the same social conditions.  And Mr. Steinfeld is absolutely superb as Lucio, which is a genuinely silly role.  With a foppish goatee and moustache, he lightheartedly condescends to everyone, greeting a nun with a, “Hail, virgin!” that almost sounds like, “Ahoy, virgin!” He even upstages Mr. Grotelueschen, a usually monumental presence who is diminished in being miscast as the Duke; his talent for physical comedy and mime is poorly used here, and his performance is reduced to an ill-fated if genuine attempt to convince us that Vincentio is not such a bad guy.  And Ms. Young finds herself in the toughest position, since Isabella’s agony and rage has no outlet in this production.  At the performance I attended, when she cries out, in a normally wrenching moment, for “justice, justice, justice, justice!” the audience responded with laughter.

Ultimately, where Fiasco’s Cymbeline was enjoyable if unfulfilling, their Measure for Measure is mostly just unfulfilling.  At intermission, I was slightly amused to hear another member of the audience trying to explain sexual extortion to her young daughter, who said she found the play confusing but funny.  After a successful Measure for Measure, adults should be exiting the theater with unsteady legs—and children shouldn’t been found within a mile of the place.

Measure for Measure runs through March 16th at the New Victory Theater.  209 W. 42nd Street  New York, NY.  2 hours 15 minutes.  One intermission.

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Aaron Botwick

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