There is not a hint, in the first act of the New York Public Theater’s production of William Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” that the show is one of the Bard’s “problem plays.”
Up to intermission, both the play itself and this beautifully acting production offer up a set of detailed characters, compelling situations, truly funny comic relief, and a vibrant set of moral and social questions that we are still wrestling with to this day (legislation of morality anyone?)
In it, tormented Duke Vincentio, realizing he’s let things get a bit slack in Vienna, opts to head out of town and turns over his powers to a self-righteous deputy Angelo. His hope? That Angelo will straighten things out and, at the same time, take the heat for straightening things out.
But Angelo takes his job very seriously, coming down hard on the town’s citizens, including arresting youthful Claudio for impregnating Claudio’s fiancée. With the sentence being death (I told you Angelo was harsh), Claudio’s rapscallion pal Lucio urges Claudio’s sister, Isabella, to beg for the lad’s life.
Isabella is a novice nun, about to take her vows. And that complicates matters because she’s against her brother’s actions. Although torn, she tries to intercede anyway, but her actions only spark the latent lust of Angelo, who offers her a deal: Her virginity for Claudio’s life.
Then there are the prostitutes, the drunks, and the (in this production), black-clad demons populating the stage.
All good so far.
In fact, all great for audience members who nabbed free tickets to Shakespeare in the Park, a wonderful New York tradition that I somehow never managed to get to in my years of catching theater in New York. The Delacorte Theater’s wide, curved, welcoming stage embraces the 1.800+ audience members and on its boards have trod the high-profile likes of Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline in Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children”), Anne Hathaway and Audra McDonald in “Twelfth Night,” and Al Pacino in “The Merchant of Venice.”
The “Measure for Measure” cast included some familiar faces (including outstanding Broadway vet John Cullum and Tonya Pinkins, known for “All My Children” and other TV appearances) but no bona fide marques stars. And that’s just fine, because the play’s the thing here, and the cast (including the stunning Danai Gurira, the complex Michael Hayden, and the joyfully knuckleheaded Carson Elrod, David Manis, and Reg Rogers) deliver “Measure for Measure” in all its problematic power.
So what’s the problem?
Well, in the second act, the Duke’s behavior becomes more and more perplexing as he crafts a convoluted scheme to set things right. This involves both bed-partner-switching and decapitated head-switching (although, remarkable for a Shakespeare comedy, there’s no cross-dressing). And it’s difficult to get behind a guy willing to tell a woman that her brother has been killed when he actually hasn’t.
Director David Esbjornson and his cast strap themselves to the mast during the play’s rough waters, though, safely and reasonably coherently arriving at an oddly moving and powerful shore of its conclusion. No surprise that order is restored and that couples are paired up. This is Shakespeare, after all. But the marital alliances all seem on unstable ground, leaving the characters facing something besides the happiness and order of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” et al.
The Delacorte Theater, by the way, has no curtain to signal the end of the play. And that’s appropriate for a production whose characters seem like they’ll be living and breathing—and facing moral challenges—long after the show is over.
“Measure for Measure” runs in repertory with “All’s Well That Ends Well” through July 30. Details here.