The Elevator Repair Service is best known for their radical minimalist productions; perhaps their most famous is Gatz, an eight-hour reading of The Great Gatsby in its entirety. I was admittedly ambivalent, then, about their Measure for Measure: would director John Collins and his cast and crew suit the text to the concept or the concept to the text? Would Shakespeare even be identifiable amidst the chaos, or would Measure for Measure simply serve as a tool for experimental theater?
The news is good, great even. This Measure for Measure is a revelation, a truly expert use of Shakespeare that allows opportunities for rethinking not only theatrical space but the play itself. When we walk in to LuEsther Hall, the cast is already sitting around a large conference table littered with rotary telephones, cards, ashtrays, and tumbler glasses. In the beginning, the language is deliberately stilted, and speeches are delivered into the phones rather than to other characters. The pace is frantic, and often actors rapidly spit out their lines while the text of the play is teleprompted behind them, varying in speed according to performance; thus, we are able to compare the actors with their text, better enabling us to tease out ironies and hypocrisies in speech. This is perhaps most evident when, in a moment of Beckettian absurdity, the stage directions read of Isabella (Rinne Groff) “She exits” as Ms. Groff remains frozen onstage.
Though rat-a-tat delivery is often the mark of an amateur Shakespearean, here it feels appropriate in a Vienna awash in miscommunication and unbreachable barriers between citizens and their representatives. Furthermore, it provides a foil for scenes in which the action is slowed down, the pace reduced to a crawl and the viewer able to pore over the details much as we would if we were readers. These moments, of course, would not have such resonance were the tempo consistent throughout. I therefore found myself devastated when all technical fireworks were dropped as Isabella visits Claudio (Greig Sargeant) in prison. Over the hum of the air conditioning, both Ms. Groff and Mr. Sargeant displayed tremendous restraint as one faced death and the other the responsibility for that death. When his sister hangs up the phone and gets up to leave, Claudio cries, “Hear me, Isabella,” the glass between the two making this line painfully literal.
As for Angelo (Pete Simpsons), the puritan who is alleged to urinate “congealed ice,” he is usually depicted as an implacable force whose stentorian demeanor admits few insecurities—and indeed, this is how I’ve always imagined him. However, as Mr. Simpson plays him, his soliloquies are opportunities for frenetic rage. These impressionistic moments recall Richard Nixon’s ramblings in Secret Honor and make exceptional use of the chinks in this blowhard’s armor.
Ultimately, Shakespeare demands constant reinvention as successive generations ferret out what is most insightful to them in any given work. The measure of any production is in the ways it offers you new perspectives on old plays, new angles in which to better understand the characters and dramatic action. Under this rubric, the Elevator Repair Service has succeeded without question, and I sincerely hope their talents are brought to bear on the Bard for many seasons to come.
Measure for Measure runs through November 12th at LuEsther Hall. 425 Lafayette Street New York, NY. 2 hours 15 minutes. No intermission.