The Public Theater's second offering for Shakespeare in the Park is Measure for Measure, a fitting pair to play in repertory with All's Well That Ends Well. Both use the classic bed switch to determine the fate of the male protagonists, and this summer is saucily billed as Shakespeare in Bed.
Director David Esbjornson certainly knows how to get an audience's attention. Black horned devils creep on stage as the floor splits open and a bed rises from beneath, heaped with writhing bodies. A man struggles to free himself from beneath the pile, throwing off grotesque figures of death and vice; he wakes up in shock, and he is revealed to be Vincentio, shaken by these visions from his dream that reflect the truth in his Vienna. In a panic, he flees his bedroom with only the clothes on his back, flinging instructions behind him in his haste.
The scene clears, and we drop in on vice personified: Mistress Overdone, Tonya Pinkins in quite a change from the well-mannered Countess of All's Well. Her clients languish about, with garish ladies of the house nearby—dressed in oversized bustles and hoop frames, multicolored wigs, and lacquered breastplates, my friend remarked that they were Baroque Lady Gagas. Elizabeth Hope Clancy's costuming brings extravagance and cheap flashiness to the underbelly of Vienna: Lucio wears a two-toned sateen suit and leather fedora, while Pompey sports an off-the-rack Hot Topic wannabe rebel look that is perfectly sullen and angsty. She puts Angelo in a cold gray suit, the perfect image of a man trapped in his own absolutes. The nuns are in full habit, and Marianna looks elegant and stunning in a periwinkle crushed velvet dress. The contrast between the worlds that the characters inhabit are projected through their clothing, and the conflict of the play comes when these people are smashed up against each other.
Scott Pask's scenic design is momentarily obscured by the dramatic opening, but the austerity is a perfect contrast. A stark black angular balcony with etched crosses frame the space, while movable stairs indicate shifts in locale. Vertical bars slide in from stage left and right to create jail cells, home to more and more of Vienna’s subjects as the play progresses. A trap door multitasks as an entry to Claudio’s cell block as well as a wading pool. (I couldn’t see the logistics, but it seems to work practically as well as artistically.) John Gromada's score provides the excellent soundtrack to the production, from somber melodies backing up the chaste nun, to rock and loud thrashing metal transitioning from the house of God to the house of sin. Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting scheme is so nuanced that it’s almost unnoticeable—until the ending scene where the stained-glass designs kaleidoscope together, disorienting and beautiful.
Isabella also makes her first appearance rising through the floor, but under very different circumstances: dressed in a novice’s simple white dress, a nun is shearing her hair, pieces scattered on the floor as she asks if there are any more strictures she can employ. Danai Gurira as Isabella is passionate about her chastity, her love for her brother, and her staunch unwillingness to sacrifice one for the other. Occasionally Gurira borders on shrieking when she reaches the height of her hysteria, but the emotions behind her frenzy are genuine. There is a haunting moment with Claudio when she understands that human reason and decency, the law, and even her own kin have abandoned her to her worst nightmare. She simply stops and lets the icy realization overcome her, and it is chilling for us to watch.
And certainly it is not the only moment that leaves us feeling horrified. Michael Hayden as Angelo is in turns terrifying and unseemly, unduly harsh and unwilling to take responsibility for his own actions. As he takes the audience through Angelo's mind and reasoning, as he explains to us why Angelo lusts for Isabella's virtue and his future degradation of it, Hayden shows us how truly vile such hypocrisy is. At the moment of final confrontation before Gurira seemingly capitulates, as a black devilish creature creeps into Angelo's chambers, there is real darkness in Hayden, and we see the monster in the man.
In great juxtaposition, we see level-headed but helpless Escalus. John Cullum plays him with a sense of humor and a quick wit, but his fairness does not mask his shrewd ferocity. We also see a fascinating character study in the Duke, as Lorenzo Pisoni comes to lead the cast. Casting a younger Vincentio is a bold move, and it pays off, as he has a young honesty and earnestness that we rarely see in the Duke. Pisoni believes (or wants to believe) in Angelo in a way that he doesn't in himself. His protege later betrays his trust, not only by Angelo's advances on Isabella but from his aggressive scourging of the Duke's precious and misguided Vienna, purging the city with stringency instead of optimism. Pisoni lays it all bare for us, from his disappointments and frustrations to his self-congratulatory cockiness in his cleverness, to fix the problems he creates and exacerbates. Pisoni takes the language and imbues it with authentic newness and wonder, not taking a moment of the play for granted. He is a talent, a true find on the classical stage.
Esbjornson’s greatest contribution to the production is his well-muscled interpretation of the script. He splices the Duke’s scene with the friar and Isabella’s first appearance, showing the parallels between Vincentio’s temporary ascetic life and Isabella’s devotion to her permanent one. Claudio explains his crimes and sentence as officers of the court test the balcony scaffolding above him, for some cheeky gallows humor. The bawdy courtroom scene with Masters Pompey and Froth is turned from a script-filler to real comic relief, and Pompey (Carson Elrod) works the audience brilliantly when he becomes the executioner’s assistant. Esbjornson even takes a small throw away line and weaves a plot arc into the ending. But his final interpretation is a sucker punch, giving Isabella yet another impossible decision forced on her by the world at large. As much as modern audiences abhor her cold and and uncompromising demeanor, we cannot help but sympathize with Isabella's new dilemma, and her victim status as the world constantly pulls her out of her desired hermetic solitude. And we see Angelo is not the only hypocrite.