Imagine a city where inhabitants are joyfully promiscuous. Outlandish fools get arrested. Women get knocked up. Corrupt politicians are involved in juicy sex scandals with young girls.
I know. It sounds a lot like New York . . . but it’s not.
The place I’m describing is Vienna within Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure. In that Vienna, everyone who engages in premarital sex gets beheaded. If that were the case in New York, the city’s population would staggeringly decrease.
Following the opening of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, the production of Measure for Measure, directed by David Esbjornson, is the second play from this season’s Shakespeare in the Park.
Measure for Measure is running in repertory with All’s Well That Ends Well, directed by Daniel Sullivan, through Saturday, July 30, at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater. Both problem plays feature the same company of actors and similar plot elements, but the two directors deliver two very distinct productions.
Measure for Measure addresses the possible moral decay of society. It begins when The Duke of Vienna (Lorenzo Pisoni) has a horrible nightmare and decides to leave the city. In his absence, he grants full power to Angelo (Michael Hayden), a pompous man who soon becomes a vicious dictator. On a power trip, Angelo decides to implement strict laws forbidding premarital sex and other religious immoralities. The crimes are punishable by death.
Claudio (André Holland), a nobleman who has impregnated his girlfriend Juliet (Kristen Connolly), is the first victim of the law. He is sentenced to beheading, in order to serve as an example for the citizenship. In the meantime, The Duke has not actually left the city and has disguised himself as a local friar to spy on Angelo.
Claudio is known at a brothel in town run by the bawdy Mistress Overdone (Tonya Pinkins) and Pompey (Carson Elrod), the pimp who works for her. Elrod gives one of the best performances in the play as he creates an entertaining and complex character out of Pompey, who could have easily been reduced to just comic relief. Lucio (Reg Rogers), Claudio’s friend and a regular patron of the brothel, visits Claudio’s sister Isabella (Danai Gurira), who is a nun. He begs her to speak to Angelo in order to reverse her brother’s verdict.
Isabella is granted a meeting with Angelo, and she passionately pleads for Claudio’s life. In the process, Claudio starts developing sexual feelings for her and hypocritically offers her a bribe—her virginity for her brother’s life. Being the most virtuous (and therefore one of the most boring) characters in the play, she of course refuses until her brother pleads she go through with it. She still says “no”, however, not seeing the value of sacrificing her soul for his life here on earth.
Disgusted by Angelo’s actions, The Duke/friar then conceives two deceptions. He tells Isabella to meet Angelo, but at the last minute he performs a “body switch” and deceivingly, Angelo sleeps with his jilted ex Mariana (Annie Parisse) instead of Isabella. The second deception happens after Angelo flakes out on his deal and decides to speed up Claudio’s execution. The Duke/friar performs yet another body switch, and a drunk prisoner is killed instead of Claudio. The play culminates to the friar’s true identity finally being revealed.
What doesn’t work in Measure for Measure is the gimmicks and displaced sitcom humor. Pointing at things with a dildo, constantly drawing attention to your crotch, and over-the-top gestures and line delivery–although garnering a few laughs—make Shakespeare appear a little off. And if you’re going to do it, at least fully commit to it, so there is some level of consistency. Danai Gurira’s Isabella is just too serious and despaired to match well with the musings and mannerisms of Reg Roger’s Lucio, for example.
The set and staging don’t detract from the inconsistencies, and sometimes draw more attention to them. The stage is bare for most of the production and there isn’t a lot of movement, so oftentimes there’s just an actor standing in one place—either delivering very dramatic dialogue or going the opposite way and supplying humorous sexual innuendo. A nice touch was when Pompey jumps into the crowd and points out the deplorable wretches of society in the audience.
Shakespeare in the Park has consistently delivered supreme acting talent in its productions, so the cast makes a solid attempt. Individually, they are very committed to their characters and the story.
Measure for Measure has a few kinks, but it is still a worthwhile effort, considering they had to deal with one of Shakespeare’s less popular plays.
For ticket information and performance schedule, visit www.shakespeareinthepark.org or call 212-539-8750. The Delacorte Theater is accessible via the 81st Street and Central Park West, or 79th Street and Fifth Avenue entrance.
The full cast includes Bill Army, Kristen Connolly, John Cullum, Carson Elrod, Joe Forbrich, Danai Gurira, Michael Hayden, Andre Holland, Jordan Lund, David Manis, Dakin Matthews, Charlie Francis Murphy, Caitlin O’Connell, Annie Parisse, Carra Patterson, Tonya Pinkins, Lorenzo Pisoni, James Rees, Reg Rogers, Lucas Caleb Rooney, Benjamin Thys, Brendan Titley, Katie Tuminelly, Zachary Unger, Benjamin Perry Wenzelberg and Roger Yeh.