With the closing of the Pearl, the stakes have been raised for Theatre for a New Audience, our last, best hope for classical revival in New York City. Their new production of Measure for Measure is a fairly good sign. As we enter the theater, we are encouraged to stroll through Mistress Overdone’s brothel: through glass, we watch actors engage in light BDSM, while the walls are lined, museum-style, with sex toys, including a particularly heinous dildo featuring the face of Donald Trump.
Director Simon Godwin’s take, then, is rather light. Though Measure for Measure has always struck me as among the darkest of Shakespeare’s plays—in addition to a staggering amount of emotional manipulation, it features, in a manner suggested by the title, a rape in response to an attempted rape—this time around the focus is on the bacchanalia that is Shakespeare’s Vienna. Thus, when Duke Vincentio (Jonathan Cake) briefly abdicates the throne so that the hypocritical puritan Angelo (Thomas Jay Ryan) can clean up his streets, the result is less an examination of power and consent and more an ebullient comedy of errors. It’s not my reading of the play, but it’s a good deal of fun, nonetheless.
In contrast to Overdone’s cavernous brothel—which is a terrific demonstration of the Polonsky Shakespeare Center’s versatility—the set design is sparse but effective, in particular the local jail, which is assembled onstage from two large halves. This minimalism doesn’t mean, however, that Mr. Godwin shies away from spectacle: Austrian flags are handed out to the audience, who are encouraged to wave them during the Duke’s return. Furthermore, Mariana (Merritt Janson) is cast as a weary lounge singer, allowing her a few sultry numbers during intermission.
Mr. Cake, whose affable Duke resembles the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, leads a pretty strong ensemble, including Haynes Thigpen’s roguish Lucio and Zachary Fine’s gladiatorial Barnadine. And Mr. Ryan, with slicked-back, thinning hair and a penchant for hand sanitizer, is a wonderfully reserved Angelo, suggesting a more complicated psychology than the other characters, with all their jokes about ice water urine, would indicate.
Granted, I do wish directors would be more willing to embrace the Measure for Measure I find in this text, the one where Isabella (Cara Ricketts) is sexually blackmailed, deceived into believing her brother is dead, and finally forced into marriage with the man who is responsible, both directly and indirectly, for all of this. Vincentio ends the play by cheerfully announcing the nuptials that are practically a requirement for Shakespearean comedy, but it is always Isabella’s silence that I find most compelling.
Measure for Measure runs through July 16th at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center. 262 Ashland Place Brooklyn, NY. 2 hours 45 minutes. One intermission.