Measure for Measure
Six Actors Measure Up to Play's Challenges
Fiasco Theater, New Victory Theater, New York, N.Y.
Saturday, March 1, 2014, A–2&4 (first row, center mezzanine)
Directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld
Duke Vincentio (Andy Grotelueschen, left) and Pompey (Noah Brody, right) recover in the aftermath of their close encounter with Bernardine behind the jail door that Escalus (Jessie Austiran) now guards in the Fiasco production of William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure at the New Victory Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus, New Victory Theater.
Six actors. Six doors.
The six actors are what give Fiasco Theater its fame—or, for some, notoriety—as the troupe tackles some of the more obscure and demanding plays of William Shakespeare's canon. Two years ago, the troupe became the critical darlings of New York when it packed the sprawling Cymbeline into six players and a trunk. Now the sextet are doing a 15-characters Measure for Measure at the New Victory Theater in New York. Later this year, Fiasco will debut its Two Gentlemen of Verona at The Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C.
The six doors comprise Derek McLane's set for Fiasco's Measure for Measure. Each different in style, the doors collectively represent the city—the Vienna of the play, the London that Shakespeare was really portraying, the New York of today—and ride on casters so they can be moved about to serve as backdrops and props for various scenes. As such, the set of doors exemplifies the collective understanding of Shakespeare's allegorical themes and conflicted characters that the six actors bring to this production, and it is that insight rather than the cleverness of staging the play with only six people that creates such a satisfying and fulfilling Measure for Measure.
Although company members Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld are listed as co-directors, this Measure for Measure was forged over two years by the whole ensemble, its members meeting as classmates while attending the Brown University/Trinity Rep MFA Acting Program. They were drawn, as so many Shakesgeeks are, to the play's multimoral characters, ethical ambiguities, and singular setting (the metropolis of Vienna). As the actors pointed out in an after-show talkback, their characters and, by extension, the play's society function in three psychological realms: the intellectual, represented by the mind of the individual and the laws of society; the spiritual, represented by the heart and church; and the carnal, represented by the groin and brothels. On first glance, the play's characters represent one or another of these realms, but they inevitably find themselves journeying through the other realms, too. Sometimes it is against their will, as in the case of Isabella and Angelo, both entrapped by his uncontrollable slide into carnal lust.
To some, this may not sound like proper fodder for a children's theater, which is the mission of New Victory. This Measure for Measure is listed as appropriate for audiences 13 and over, and despite the subject matter, the company refrains from overtly physical sexual innuendo. Nevertheless, not only does the company keep the play's sex-centered plot and dialogue intact, it challenges the young audience to tackle for themselves the ethical dilemmas Shakespeare broaches with the play. In the theater's basement lobby, a wall chart invites audience members (with color-coded stickers keyed to age) to judge the play's moral conundrums on a continuum scale from "reprehensible" to "virtuous." The questions start with the Duke's plan to leave town and come back in disguise and ends with his asking Isabella for her hand in marriage and include such nettlesome judgment calls as Angelo's unmerciful enforcement of the laws and later deciding to have Claudius killed despite his promise, and Isabella refusing Angelo's proposition to save her brother and later agreeing to the bed trick. Another wall chart puts New York in Vienna's shoes, listing some of the city's laws—for example, it is illegal for establishments to allow three or more people dancing at the same time without a license, for three unrelated people to live in the same rental apartment, and for people to own odd-toed ungulates—and asks kids to comment on the validity of these regulations.
Notably, Measure for Measure's three thematic realms play out not on a historical stage of English kings, nor in a fairyland of supernatural entities, nor in a universe of absurdity, but in a city in contemporary times. Only in this play and in The Merry Wives of Windsor does Shakespeare expressly portray the common urban/suburban lifestyles of his own time with a cast of characters that mostly eschews the noble class: in Wives, the knight Falstaff is a rogue and the butt of jokes, and in Measure, Duke Vincentio spends most of the play as a common friar. Interestingly, both plays concern themselves with sexual morality; Measure for Measure, however, goes much deeper and is much darker than The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Furthermore, as the company members pointed out in the talkback, the various strata of society and their representations of the three psychological realms come into constant contact and collide in cities. Lucio, of the middle or privileged class, hangs out in a brothel, the population of the brothel ends up in the halls of justice, and most of the action takes place in a prison in which every key character except Angelo converge.
This is the thematic significance of the six doors. Doors and gates serve expressly as both access and obstacles to the various realms. They provide privacy, they invite scrutiny. For her illicit tryst with Angelo, Isabella is instructed to go through both a "planched gate" and a "little door," and she's given the key to enter into this private place ostensibly hidden from prying eyes. And yet, that key, which Isabella gives to Marianna, is about to make the secret garden hideaway a very public place.
An iron gate is one of the six doors. Opposite it on the stage at the play's start is an arched church door. A huge wood-stained door dominates the middle and serves for city hall; turned around, it is painted white and serves as the way to the inner rooms of the brothel. Another door has a curtained window over the upper half and is the brothel's street-front entrance (like a shopkeeper's door, a bell tingles whenever it opens, provided by an actor sitting off-stage). Opposite it is the jail, a rough-wood door with barred window. The sixth is a nondescript paneled door serving as a closet. The gate doubles as a confessional, doors are placed to become the walls of a prison cell, and four doors are turned to their sides, lined up along the back, and opened to create the convent's cloistered path between the church door and garden gate.
The jail door serves as a key prop in the play's funniest scene and this production's most hilarious sketch as Duke Vincentio (disguised as the friar) and the bawd Pompey (now serving as the hangman) try to retrieve the incorrigible prisoner Barnardine for execution. A clue to the scene's success is that nobody on the cast list is credited as playing Barnardine, and we never see him, crouched down behind the door; yet we hear him yelling and can see both Vincentio and Pompey hoisted up together by a single arm and their heads banged into the bars on the door. This scene is carried out with the magic of stagecraft performed by two incredibly agile actors.
That is the only piece of trickery the six-member cast uses in presenting a play containing 23 named roles. Other than doubling—a standard in most Shakespearean productions—this company meets this challenge with contextual choices and editing (eight characters are completely excised). Only Andy Grotelueschen plays one role, that of Vincentio (well, really, he's only credited playing one role). Jessie Austrian plays Mariana and Escalus, and the role of Provost is merged in with that of Escalus (and called Escalus throughout). Steinfeld plays Lucio and Froth, Brody plays Claudio and Pompey, Paul L. Coffey plays Angelo and Elbow, and Emily Young is both Isabella and Mistress Overdone. Austrian, Brody, and Coffey also step in to play single-scene minor characters, such as Francisca and Friar Peter.
In the talkback, the actors said they drew parts based on their interests, and logistics certainly factors in so that a single actor's two characters are not on stage at the same time, (another theater troupe, Bedlam, uses in-scene doubling in its four-actor Hamlet and Saint Joan, also currently playing in New York). Nevertheless, it's tempting to see some of the play's moral conflicts represented in the actors' dual characters. The overly intellectual legal authority Angelo is played by the same actor who also portrays the overly stupid legal authority Elbow. The actor playing the amoral trafficker of fornication (Pompey) also plays the moral fornicator (Claudio). The novice nun and the brothel madam are of the same body (and in the performance we saw, a wardrobe malfunction allowed us to see Mistress Overdone's red bra peering through Isabella's bib front).
The only drawback to these casting choices is the absences of Escalus and Provost (as well as Friar Peter) in the climactic final scene as Austrian is playing Mariana. For me, Escalus's thematic arc shadows that of the Duke's, and this merges in the final scene; it is also in the last scene that we see the play's one unmitigated example of moral duty being carried out, and that is in the actions of the Provost, whether he is privy to the Duke's scheme by now or not. Though I miss these threads of the plot's final weaving, I can accuse my own self of quibbling. The edit of the script keeps Shakespeare's intent clear, and the final scene remains as tense, as dramatic, and as funny as ever. And as enigmatic as ever, too: when Isabella is hit with the Duke's proposal of marriage, she merely looks out at the audience as if asking us, "What do you think I'll say?" before the lights go out.
Further qualifying the production's Shakespearean genius is the cast members' finely honed portrayals of their characters. Austrian is a dignified Escalus and yearning Mariana. Brody is a casually funny Pompey and plays up Claudio's tormented fear of dying that causes him to advocate the rape of his sister so he can be spared. Young takes Isabella on a journey from naive novice to spunky plotter blurring the notions of justice and revenge while her Overdone is the picture of business efficiency, that business being prostitution. Grotelueschen shines a light on the Duke's insecurities, which he manages to work through and shore up over the course of the play as he manipulates events in the prison. But he never forgets his sense of duty.
Claudio (Noah Brody, left) talks with his sister, Isabella (Emily Young), about Angelo's proposal for releasing Claudio from prison as Duke Vincentio (Andy Grotelueschen) eavesdrops in Fiasco's production of Measure for Measure at the New Victory Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus, New Victory Theater.
Coffey plays Angelo as unquestionably straight-laced, refusing a proffered drink from the Duke in the opening scene and seeming genuinely humble when the Duke designates him to take his place. But Coffey's Angelo has a streak of pride—he stiffens when Isabella refers to his "brief authority"—and he regards his own self as a totally other person when he realizes how much Isabella, through her very virtue and religious passion, has triggered his lust. "What's this, what's this?" he says to himself like a father to a child's found-out transgression. Once committed to his lust, Coffey's Angelo becomes a trapped animal, gamely trying to hold up pretenses though that self-knowledge of his own sin hangs about him like an obfuscated halo.
As serious as the play treats its themes, it is certainly a comedy, and this production, even as it takes the moral high, low, and middle roads, guns for all the laughs it can glean from the script, with Steinfeld leading the way as Lucio. Whether it's the line itself or his delivery, posture, or expression, Steinfeld manages to earn a laugh from every single thing Lucio says, whether he's conversing about his diseases earned doing business at Overdone's place, or petitioning Isabella to plead to Angelo for Claudio's deliverance, or badmouthing the Duke to the disguised Duke, or interrupting Vincentio's carefully stage-managed climax with impertinent comments. Lucio is the kind of lothario we love to listen to and perhaps wish we could be: he obviously enjoys life, and his personality keeps his reputation and lifestyle intact, until he is caught up in the Duke's displeasure.
These six players open the play singing a composition by William Byrd, a contemporary of Shakespeare's, in counterpoint and six-part harmony. As they reach the "Amen" at song's end, the six voices blend into one, multifaceted note. It's an aural gemstone. That moment portends the ensemble production to follow as six well-versed Shakespeareans deliver Shakespeare's most multifaceted comic drama with perfect pitch.
March 4, 2014