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A CurtainUp Review
Measure for Measure
Postscript by Elyse Sommer
I'm especially glad to be staging one of Shakespeare's notorious "problem Plays." Theatrical problems are ER's bread-and-butter. — from program note by John Collins, Elevator Repair Service's artistic director and this Measure For Measure's director.
 Measure for Measure
The Cast (Photo: Richard Termine)
Pete Simpson and Rinne Groff (Photo: Richard Termine)
The poet Samuel Coleridge was not alone in regarding Measure for Measure as one of Shakespeare's problem plays. He most famously found fault with it in one of his lectures, describing it as "the only painful part of his genuine works." Yet, critics like Coleridge have failed to be a death sentence for this resilient play. In fact, Coleridge's pointed antipathy was exactly what prompted Elevator Repair Service, known for its retooling of 20th Century literature, to choose this problem play for its first take on Shakespeare. After, all, per the above quoted program note by John Collins, the company founder and this Measure for Measure's director, "theatrical problems are ERS's bread-and-buttter."

In their first go at Shakespeare, Collins and the Elevator Repair Service ensemble mostly land on their theatrical feet — with a little help and shtick from the legendary Marx Brothers. Those who frequent downtown theater venues need no introduction to ERS. Since it was founded by Collins in 1991, the company has turned literary texts and cultural artifacts into theatrical gold though many know it mostly for Gatz, their six-and-a-half-hour-long dramatized reading of The Great Gatsby. It's difficult to put the ERS style into any precise category. Suffice it to say that their oeuvre is flavored with Da-da-ism, the absurd, and the ridiculous.

Having seen several Measure for Measures on the New York boards this past year (most recently Desperate Measures a Measures-inspired musical), I wondered if it was possible for me to watch another production of this tragicomedy without stifling a yawn. Fortunately, the answer is yes. ERS takes the play to a new space of feeling and being letting its tragic and comic elements intersect provocatively.

Indeed, Measure for Measure is a glove-in-hand fit for ERS. And if the ripples of laughter from the audience count for something, their version overturns the notion that the play is best kept on the shelf.

Of course, the characters from Vienna's underworld — Mistress Overdone, Pompey, Barnardine, and Lucio—draw the most laughs during this two-hour, sans intermission show. But a trace of the Marx Brothers' routines can be detected in almost every scene. But then who better than ERS to deploy Marx Brother-inspired slapstick? The company's very first venture was a homage to the iconic comedians in The Marx Brothers on Horseback Salad.

The shenanigans interspersed into scenes add zest, but the helter-skelter pacing of the dialogue may have you feeling somewhat confused unless you pay close attention throughout. That's why, I'd strongly urge anyone unfamiliar with the play, to arrive early enough to read the synopsis in the program that gives an overview of the play with all its knotty plot entanglements.

Though it's evident that the company has the Bard's traditional iambic pentameters firmly anchored in their collective ear, the performers alternately speed up their lines, slow them down, and then recalibrate them to the Bard's true metrical pattern. Coupling the spoken language with text projections on a screen upstage, intensifies our theatrical experience by having Shakespeare's verse land on the ear and eye at once. True, it's almost impossible to absorb the text and the stage proceedings simultaneously — but it's exhilarating and fun.

Happily, the cast is made up of ERS mainstays. Long-time member Scott Shepherd, playing the Duke, is spot on. He captures the nuances of the Duke's multi-layered personality, including his craftiness, compassion, and even his propensity for deceit. It's not for nothing that Lucio calls him the "the old fantastical duke of dark corners" in Act 4.

Another fine performance is rendered by Rinne Groff as the Franciscan novitiate Isabella. Groff's Isabella is more sophisticated in look and manner then most Isabellas I've seen. She uses her poise to particularly fine effect when she's intellectually sparring with Angelo in Act 2, in hopes of persuading him to countermand her brother Claudio's death sentence.

The always-amazing Susie Sokol acquits herself well in the multiple roles of Mistress Overdone, Elbow, Abhorson, and Varrius. Pete Simpson, as the surrogate duke Angelo, terrifically exposes his character's darker side when he breaks into some wild dance routines after falling in love with Isabella. Mike Iverson deserves a shout out for his portrayal of the slanderer Lucio, who serves as the play's example for what can happen to those who spread false rumors.

The production values match the quality of the performances. Jim Findlay's severe-looking set consists of one long and two shorter wooden tables and chairs, embellished by a number of old-fashioned candlestick telephones, all creatively employed to meet the dramatic moment. A series of white rectangular-shaped panels upstage conveniently can serve as entranceways, strategic hideaways for characters, or used as frames to create vivid tableaus.

Mark Barton and Ryan Seelig's dim lighting is just right for this play that includes four prison scenes and a number of secluded venues. Scott Shepherd's teleprompter software works in tandem with Eva Von Schweinitz' text projections, ensuring that this Measure for Measure is simultaneously a literary and theatrical event. And when it comes to the haberdashery, Kay Voyce's eclectic costumes, each suitable to the character's idiosyncracies, range from the elegant to the buffoonish.

Although the ERS venture is off-beat, it remains faithful to Shakespeare's essential dramaturgy. While this retooling might not suit everyone, the director and actors use their signature style and a dash of vaudeville to tap into the kaleidoscope of the play's themes of justice, mercy, forgiveness, sex, death, abd honesty — with all that seamlessly colliding and ultimately giving us a broader view of the human condition.

In spite of what Coleridge and other naysayers said, watching this latest incarnation of Shakespeare's 1604 play is a far better investment of your time than listening to the latest sex scandal break into the headlines, or learning who's in and who's out in the Trump White House.

Postscript by Elyse Sommer.
We missed the very early Marx Brothers Salad (1991) Other Elevator Repair Service Plays Reviewed at Curtainup but we've caught most of their most notable works. That includes early productions such as No Great Society, Highway to Tomorrow, Room Tone and Total Fictional Lie .

Of their three takes on 20th Century literary titans — Gatz , the marathon reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury — two were also done at the Public Theater; and so s was Arguendo docu-drama about the Supreme Court

While Fitzgerald's iconic The Great Gatsby eluded success on screen even with star casting, the ERS approach which sounded rather boring was anything but. It became a super hit and the Public had to bring it back for a second run.

It's also worth noting that the ERS ensemble is as versatile as it is talented; to wit, the always riveting Scott Shepherd not only does so now as the multi-faceted Duke but created the teleprompter software for the clever projected text. And Rinne Groff, when not acting (as she does so iimpressively here), is also a playwright. Two of her plays, Compulsion and Ruby Sunrise, were also produced at the Public Theater and helmed by its own artistic director, Oskar Eustis.

Finally, while I haven't seen quite as many Measure for Measures as Deirdre, I agree that you could do a lot worse than spending two hours following the comings and goings of the Bard-cum-ERS characters rather than those surrounding our tweet-happy president.

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Measure for Measure
Shakespeare's Play by Elevator Repair Service
Directed by John Collins
Created and performed by Elevator Repair Service
Cast: Rinne Groff (Isabella), Lindsay Hockaday (Pompey, Juliet), Maggie Hoffman (Provost), Mike Iveson (Lucio), Vin Knight (Escalus), April Matthis (A nun, Mariana), Gavin Price (Froth, Friar, aBoy, Barnardine, a Messenger), Greig Sargeant (Claudio), Scott Shepherd (the Duke), Pete Simpson (Angelo), Susie Sokol (Mistress Overdone, Elbow,Abhorson, Varrius).
Production design by Eva Von Schweinitz
Scenic design by Jim Findlay
Specialty and Prop design by Amanda Villalobos
Costume design by Kaye Voyce
Lighting design by Mark Barton and Ryan Seelig
Sound design by Gavin Price
Teleprompter Software Design by Scott Shepherd
Stage Manager: Maurina Luci
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, no inermission
The Public Theater's Luesther Hall
From 9/17/17; opening 10/10/17; closing 11/05/17.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan and Elyse Sommer at 10/06 press preview

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