Theater for A New Audience’s production of Measure for Measure is a pleasure to see in theory: a wonderful play that melds sex, power, justice, mercy, and forgiveness into a Shakespearean tailspin. Morals questioned, wrongdoings discovered, and wounds healed—plus the all-popular bed trick—usually makes for good theater, but the cast just doesn't draw the audience in. There are some beautiful moments, but the production doesn't gel enough to get lost in the verse, the story, the emotion that overwhelms thinking.
The designers have created a simple yet sufficient environment for the actors to play in. Delicate chandeliers hang from the ceiling, adding feminine touches to a masculine, Roman-like set from Peter Ksander. The marble facade and the distressed, industrial silver doors give a coldness to the interior. The top third of the set has a catwalk with a chain-link or mesh partition facing the audience, creating a dynamic space that compliments or offsets the action on the main thrust. The space becomes a cloister, a whorehouse, a secret garden, a hidden chamber, and a holding cell—secluded places where chastity, virtue, and justice are all in peril. Stark lights of Marcus Doshi's coldly effective design use shadow to express inner turmoil, but sometimes you just can’t see the actors’ faces. Jane Shaw’s cinematic use of musical cues is sparse, dramatic and effective, evoking a mood with pops of sound.
The mantle that David Zinn creates for the Duke is only one of the undervalued costume choices. A cape with a swath of rich red velvet, designed to go over the bland neutral business suit, like all the politicos and their lackeys wear. This symbolic weight of authority also looks good, adding to the cold rawness of power as it transfers hands. The prim librarian look for Isabella only makes Angelo’s lust more powerful, the protestations and propriety part of his game. Lucio's semi-Clockwork Orange look expresses his character while blending with the overall look. Small details, like Chinatown slippers for the prisoners, and Lucio’s long-toed shoes, reflect consideration from director Arin Arbus. But beneath the micro-details, the performances are uneven and interactions are clunky.
The Duke (Jefferson Mays) is full of surprises, planning and conniving one minute, pondering and philosophizing the next. He darts about the stage, fixing this difficulty and that one with complex solutions, often involving dragging another person into the problem. Mays is certainly committed to his performance, but his voice doesn't carry the authority of an autocratic duke; perhaps he is more suited as a friar than a ruler. Alfredo Narciso as Lucio plays the duke of whores, where he profits from the cities vices directly and vicariously with a roguish court of his own. His cocksure and seedy manner is softened by his deep concern and regard for Claudio, perhaps a touch of innocence in his jaded life. Narciso does a fine job with the verse, and his relationship to Isabella is quite fascinating, but his emphatic hands jerked almost to the point of distraction at high-stakes moments.
Lucio and Claudio (LeRoy McClain) would seem to have a mentor/mentored relationship if Claudio wasn’t so incorruptible. Dressed in casual jeans and a sweatshirt, he seems like just an ordinary college kid, almost innocent but for his crimes against Juliet, though I can’t see what Claudio sees in her. Rose Seccareccia stands slack-jawed and hollow-eyed whenever she is on stage, which is blessedly little as she seems to be a vacuum, sucking energy instead of giving it. Joe Forbrich and Denis Butkus, playing a host of supporting characters from the friar to Barnardine, are more committed to each small role than Seccareccia to her one. If this is Arbus’s design, she gets no gold star.
Rocco Sisto as Angelo starts calm and strong, oozing political acumen, but he becomes stern and rigid, bordering on militant in his adherence to the law. When Isabella confronts him the first time, his proud determination cedes to interest in a new game. Sisto insinuates that it may not even be lust that drives Angelo, his mind calculating what sin he can get away with next. His reputation is pristine (even though the Duke knows about his abrupt cancellation of his engagement), but his actions are not.
The tension when Angelo first encounters Isabella feels more akin to father lecturing daughter, but perhaps that is what spurs him on—the more worked up she is, the more he wants to break her down. In their second meeting, the first one where they are alone, Sisto stalks her as a panther eyes his prey. It becomes clear that if she doesn’t give him what he wants, he will take it anyway. But Sisto struggles with his hypocrisy, his cloaked savageness, his vaguely self-loath for this thoughts becoming deeds. In their battles of wit, Sisto corners her, but does he really have the upper hand?
Elizabeth Waterston as Isabella speaks well, and we can see Waterston become more hysterical as she desperately seeks a solution where she won’t be miserly for keeping her virginity. Waterston's reaction to the Duke's proposal at the conclusion of all his plans, and Mays's awkward change of topic, is played perfectly. Her dumbfounded expression says it all: why would she marry him after she just saved herself to be the Bride of Christ? A strong choice for Arbus and Waterston in a nuanced play, but unfortunately it is one of the few moments with backbone. A complex, high-stakes play like this should spark debate, let passions fly, raise temperatures—it shouldn't be something to slog through, to endure.
Measure for Measure runs February 14 - March 14, 2010 at The Duke, 229 West 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036.. Information can be found at http://www.tfana.org/index.html.