A CurtainUp Review
Measure for Measure
Written in 1604, the same year that he penned his tragedy of sexual jealousy Othello, Shakespeare outdid himself with this problem play (as in moral problem), which is a sort of adult version of Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper The setting is Vienna, of course, and Duke Vincentio, is no youth but a mature ruler who can't keep his city-state in order.
You know the rest. The Duke decides to appoint the puritanical Angelo to step in as his deputy while he disguises himself as a friar and lives among his populace. Angelo, alas, falls for the saintly novice Isabella and asks her to give up her maidenhead in exchange for her condemned brother Claudio's head (Claudio's crime is having sex and impregnating his fiancée). What could be more outrageously hypocritical?
Fiasco's production of thisdiabolical tangle of power, justice, and sexuality gone awry is co-directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld. They keep it true to the Bard's myth but greatly lightens it up by ingenious double-casting. Emily Young's Isabella becomes Mistress Overdone, Ben Steinfeld's Lucio changes into Froth, Paul Coffey's Angelo morphs into Elbow, Noah Brody's Claudio turns into Pompey, and Jessie Austrian goes from Escalus to Mariana in a wink. Only Andy Grotelueschen, as Duke Vincentio, plays just one character.
There's an ambiguity built into the dramatic texture of this staging which wonderfully resonates with Mariana's Act 5 speech when she pleads to the Duke for the life of the prodigal Angelo who had been, and now is again, her fiance!: "They say, best men are moulded out of faults,?/And, for the most, become much more the better/?For being a little bad."
There are little and big "bad boys" here but Barnardine is the bad boy of bad boys. He has been awaiting execution for years, and now that his Execution Day has finally arrived, he refuses to rise to the grim occasion. As blocked here, the comic scene becomes a cartoon, with the brute Barnardine hidden behind a door, making everything and anyone coming near him airborne. Though it may be over-the-top (you can take that figuratively and literally) it makes Shakespeare refreshingly accessible for a young audience.
As for the acting, it is an ensemble effort. The synergy of this troupe is palpable and, at key dramatic moments, powerful.
Derek McLane's surreal set is very effective. The series of free-standing doors on a bare stage that the performers easily can enter and exit and allows the cast enough space to make their quicksilver changes for each of their respective parts.
Tim Cryan's doesn't stint with his lighting in the stage's foreground, which is in stark contrast to the inky black color that edges the stage and goes up to the flies. Whitney Locher's costumes fuse the traditional and contemporary and allow for the performer's athletic movements.
This American company, all with competent Shakespearean chops, are alums of Brown University/Trinity Rep M.F.A. Acting Program. They have already staged a lively Cymbeline and Twelfth Night and Measure for Measure shares in their zest via its live music (music direction by Steinfeld) which, if sometimes muted, is still in the key of hope.
. When the Duke (the real Duke) proposes to Isabella at play's end, and Isabella remains speechless, it may still seem as if it comes out of the blue. But with the Fiasco Company astonishing things rule and it somehow fits like a glove.