The Public Theater, LuEsther Hall
425 Lafayette St. by Astor Pl.
Tuesday - Sunday through November 12, $75
There’s a frenetic, anarchic pace to Elevator Repair Service’s Indy 500 version of Measure for Measure, running at the Public Theater’s LuEsther Hall through November 12. It’s like Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday on speed, the dialogue whizzing by, in sound and images, as the characters, in a bizarre array of costumes ranging from contemporary suits to hippy outfits to strange fake underpants worn over clothing, engage in corny but funny slapstick and often converse using antique Candlestick telephones even when they are sitting right across the H-shaped table from one another. The play includes every single word of Shakespeare’s script, which is occasionally projected in large letters all across the stage, but it still scrolls past so quickly there is not enough time to read it all. To maintain the verbal madness, which slows down only for one key scene, there is a Teleprompter behind the audience that guides the actors primarily for speed, employing software designed by ERS member Scott Shepherd, who also plays the Duke. (Shepherd and ERS founding artistic director John Collins, the director of Measure for Measure, are veterans of the Wooster Group, which also incorporates unique visuals using monitors in their shows.) You might not clearly understand everything everyone says, but you’ll be able to follow the general shenanigans as the Bard takes on sex, mortality, morality, fidelity, virtue, virginity, marriage, religion, pregnancy, prison, and capital punishment. In Vienna, the Duke is about to head out of town for a while, leaving his deputy, Angelo (Pete Simpson), in charge. However, the Duke hovers around, disguised as a friar, as the story unfolds, involving Juliet (Lindsay Hockaday), who is having a child with Claudio (Greig Sargeant); brothel manager Mistress Overdone (Susie Sokol); Claudio’s sister, Isabella (Rinne Groff), a religious novice; the nun Mariana (April Matthis); the young nobleman and lowlife Lucio (Mike Iveson); the Provost (Maggie Hoffman), who runs the prison; aged adviser Escalus (Vin Knight); constable Elbow (Gavin Price, who also is the sound designer); and various other characters of ill and not-so-ill repute. The plot centers on Angelo’s arrest of Claudio for impregnating Juliet out of wedlock and the deputy’s offer to release him from prison only if Isabella will sleep with him. It’s quite a moral dilemma — especially as more and more men in positions of power in America today are discovered to be sexual predators — and one that is not resolved very easily. “Death is a fearful thing,” Claudio tells Isabella, who responds, “And shamed life a hateful.”
At a talkback following the October 18 performance, the audience was asked if it was anyone’s first time at the Public, and no hands went up. They were next asked if it was anyone’s first time seeing Shakespeare, and a few hands went up. They were then asked if it was anyone’s first time seeing Measure for Measure, and more than half the hands went up. It is also ERS’s first time doing the Bard, following well-received, original adaptations of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (Gatz), William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (The Select), among other presentations. Founded in 1991 by artistic director John Collins, ERS leans heavily toward the experimental over the traditional, and that is as evident as ever in this exciting version of one of Shakespeare’s seldom-performed problem plays. Director Collins and ERS have chosen to make the ribald shenanigans take a backseat to the staging, which is filled with delightful contradictions and decisions that go from the sublime to the ridiculous. “I’ve come to appreciate that 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,” Collins writes in a program note. It might have been very different if he had chosen to do a more familiar Shakespeare play, in which much of the audience might already know the main aspects of the plot, so selecting Measure for Measure, which zooms by in an intermissionless 135 minutes, is a curious decision. Of course, opera is not exactly plot-friendly to those who don’t know the story either. In preparing for the show, Collins had the cast and crew watch Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday along with Hands on a Hardbody and the Marx Brothers, elements of which help propel this version to another level that Shakespeare purists might wag a finger at but more adventurous theatergoers will end up clapping wildly at.