A CurtainUp Review
Measure For Measure
Of course the obvious themes have to be covered properly too, and as usual TFNA assembles the cast and crew to manage the task. Peter Ksander's set — an elevated cage-like balcony and stage level metal doors which slam shut during entrances and exits— perfectly represents the merciless justice fetishized by too many characters in the play. Both sound and lighting compliment the feel of black and white morality which dominates the work. David Zinn's costumes are similarly successful, reflecting a kind of Victorian sensibility appropriate for the tone of the play. Even the music (Sarah Pickett), winding its way from rave-like clubs to royal flourishes to the soft blues which capture Mariana's sad lament for her unfulfilled marriage, blends nicely into the work's overall vision.
In part, that vision is a rather ugly one. Angelo (Rocco Sisto), left in charge of a dissolute Vienna by the supposedly absent Duke Vincentio (Jefferson Mays), begins immediately to crack down on the vice which has been permitted (or at least ignored) for nearly fifteen years — a problem which the Duke had both anticipated and desired but believed himself incapable of addressinggiven his previous leniency. But in fact the Duke has not left Vienna, choosing instead to disguise himself as a friar and observe not simply Angelo's rule but the citizens' reaction to it.
When Claudio (LeRoy McClain) violates a seldom-enforced law against fornication with his fiancée, Angelo decides to make an example of him by enforcing the old penalty of death. When Claudio's sister, the beautiful and pure Isabella (Elisabeth Waterston) goes to plead on her brother's behalf, Angelo's stern morality goes out the window, and justice is forced to contend with hypocrisy for the rest of the play.
Had the production gone no farther than this, it would have been competent but not memorable. But Arbus takes the risk of plumbing the depths of the play for more subtle themes and finds gold therein: Angelo is certainly too severe in the beginning and monstrously hypocritical in the end, but Isabella is no less puritanical in her outlook. When she calls her terrified brother Claudio a "beast,""faithless coward" and "dishonest wretch," hoping that he "diest quickly" rather than saving him by surrendering her body to Angelo, it's hard not to see the Duke's deputy and her as more of a piece than we might have suspected at the beginning. And this is, of course, the true point. Shakespeare's objection was not to tyranny as such, but severity in general. In this context Isabella's impenetrable moralizing — "Lord Angelo, having affairs to heaven, / Intends you for his swift ambassador," she says to Claudio without irony, apparently intending some form of perverse comfort. Yet this seems little different than Angelo's fetishization of the law. That Arbus picks up on this similarity is remarkable and critical for the play's success.
The acting is, for the most part, of a similarly high standard. Sisto carries his Angelo as rigidly unyielding as one could wish. Waterston makes Isabella at least partially (and I think rightly) unlikable in a subtle and unusual way. The rest of the cast, from Alyssa Bresnahan's sympathetic Mariana to Alfredo Narciso's surprisingly nuanced Lucio, is generally quite good (with a couple of minor exceptions). But the star truly is Jefferson Mays, who shows his Tony-winning pedigree with a performance both broad and deep. The Duke, who must expertly navigate between severity and leniency, has to be utterly human if the play is to work, and Mays gives him the perfect combination of authority, cunning, compassion and self-doubt. When the Duke pronounces his sentence toward the play's end, we become aware that he is testing both Angelo and Isabella, and watching his reaction to the result is striking. It is a first-class performance.
In fact, the whole production is first-class, and ultimately the credit for that has to go back to Arbus. If this is what we have to look forward to— a smart and subtle young director combined with the TFNA's unfailing professionalism —we're all in for many more years of high-quality classic drama. If you want to say you were there when that all started, go see this Measure for Measure as soon as you can.