There are moments in the “Measure for Measure” by experimental theater company Elevator Repair Service at the Public that offer the purest Shakespeare on any New York stage; this occurs when they project the Bard’s words on the backdrop as the performers are reciting them. But even here, it’s only when an entire verse is projected, and scrolls up slowly, that there’s clarity. Most of the time, the projected words are scattered, fragmented, overly large, scrolling up at great speed, all of which renders the text unreadable.
The scrolling word play feels like a metaphor for this avant-garde production of Shakespeare’s last comedy as a whole: It’s hard to read. There are watchable moments, occasional visual appeal in the design, even some touching scenes. But it’s difficult to figure out – or appreciate — what director John Collins is up to.
This is the first time in the 26 years since Collins founded Elevator Repair Service (reportedly named after the occupation he was told to pursue by a vocational counselor) that the ensemble is staging a play by William Shakespeare. In a program note, Collins claims that “Measure for Measure,” with its mix of “tragedy and comedy, heartbreak and absurdity creates exactly the sort of environment in which we love to play.” On the other hand, he adds, “Shakespeare’s densely layered metaphors and dizzying grammatical constructions can’t possibly be thoroughly understood and processed in real-time by any but the Elizabethan scholar. But maybe that doesn’t matter.” What makes the play “timeless,” Collins writes, is the “music” of the sentences — not, in other words, their meaning.
To me, this “Measure for Measure” counts as a missed opportunity, given the play’s startling relevance in the age of Mike Pence and Harvey Weinstein. Yes, even Elizabethan scholars label “Measure for Measure” one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, though not because of the language. It has an odd, convoluted plot, an ambiguous mix of moods and a troublesome resolution; it’s generally one of the playwright’s least performed works. But what an ensemble attuned to contemporary parallels could make of this play. The Duke of Vienna puts his deputy Angelo in charge, while the Duke pretends to leave town, but instead disguises himself as a friar to observe what happens in his “absence.” What happens is a crackdown on what Angelo sees as moral laxness. Angelo arrests Claudio because his fiancé Juliet is pregnant, and sentences Claudio to death. Claudio’s sister Isabella, a virtuous novice nun, appeals to Angelo for mercy. Angelo responds that he’ll show mercy if Isabella will sleep with him.
The Duke, as the friar, hatches a very odd plan to thwart Angelo. All eventually ends weirdly, with the most inappropriate pairings in all of Shakespeare.
How Collins and his ensemble handle “Measure for Measure” will be familiar to those who have seen previous ERS productions. The design gimmick of the vertiginous text projections, for example, is similar to the company’s 2013 play “Arguendo,” which used as its script the transcript of a Supreme Court case about nude dancing. The odd, fast-then-slow, recitation of the script – as if the cast is reading the script from a teleprompter (which, reportedly,they are) – brings to mind their 2010 breakout hit, “Gatz.” “Gatz” was a seven-hour verbatim reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” — all 47,000 or so words – with the cast portraying dual roles, both as office workers whose colleague was reading the book aloud, and as characters from the novel speaking the dialogue. As in that play, the set for “Measure for Measure” has no correlation to the settings or action – the ensemble sit around old wooden tables in a conference room, often talking to one another using the old-fashioned candlestick telephones
And there is a downtown quirkiness to this “Measure for Measure” that is present in most of ERS productions, though it was perhaps most pronounced in the notorious Fondly, Collette Richland. The cast is given to abrupt awkward goofiness that would feel like an American version of Monty Python if it were funnier.
Amid the slapstick and vaudevillian non-sequiturs, Rinne Groff as Isabella and Greig Sargeant as her condemned brother Claudio offer serious, moving performances that would not be out of place in a more conventional and accessible production.
Isabella’s pleas for grace and mercy and justice come the closest to evoking both emotionally and intellectually the main theme of “Measure for Measure” as revealed in the origin of its title, which comes from the Christian Bible: “Judge not, that you be not judged. For … the measure you give will be the measure you get.”
But such moments of provocative drama must compete with the broad theatricality of the ERS brand, which can be fun, but persists in this production for more than two hours without intermission, and mostly without letup.
Click on any photograph by Richard Termine to see it enlarged.
Measure for Measure
Written by William Shakespeare
Created and Performed by Elevator Repair Service
Directed by John Collins
Set design by Jim Findlay, costume design by Kaye Voyce, , lighting design by Mark Barton and Ryan Seelig, projection deisgn by Eva von Schweinitz, sound design by Gavin Price
Cast: Rinne Groff, Lindsay Hockaday, Maggie Hoffman, Mike Iveson, Vin Knight, April Matthis, Gavin Price, Greig Sargeant, Scott Shepherd, Pete Simpson, and Susie Sokol
Running time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, no intermission.
Tickets: $75 to $150. $45 for members. $20 lottery.
“Measure for Measure” is on stage at the Public through November 12, 2017.