Measure for Measure: In brief
Having earned considerable notice for its stripped-down versions of Cymbeline and Into the Woods, Fiasco Theater turns to Shakespeare's dark romance about a sexually repressive regent, a voyeuristic duke and a sex-averse nun-to-be. Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld codirect and are also among the cast of six.
Measure for Measure: Theater review by Helen Shaw
Don't be fooled by the fact that Fiasco Theater is performing its light-footed Measure for Measure at the youngster-oriented New Victory Theater. This is Shakespeare for everybody: kids, adults, elderly folk, the nearly-but-not-quite-dead. You've basically surrendered to the grave if you can ignore Fiasco's sprightly charms; once more, this small ensemble of Brown/Trinity Rep grads has made a “problem” play seem an easy lift.
Of all Shakespeares, Measure seems least likely to turn into a delicious evening of high delight. Our “hero” is a Viennese duke (comic tornado Andy Grotelueschen) who turns his powers over to the untested Angelo (Paul L. Coffey) to see if his friend's noted prudishness will rescue the state from licentiousness. Immediately, Angelo starts pulling down brothels and throwing pimps in jail, yet when he sentences the widely loved Claudio (Noah Brody) to death for impregnating his girlfriend, he goes one straw too far. Claudio's sister, Isabella (Emily Young), flings herself on his mercy; Angelo immediately goes bonkers with lust and tries to blackmail her into bed; the duke lurks around in disguise as a priest, getting the goods on everybody. It's a sour-tasting brew, in which the virtuous seem like cowards or prudes and fast friendships and family bonds all split when the law tests them.
So Measure for Measure rather needs Fiasco's unfussy, poor-theater sweetness. It's true that a more deeply felt production would let us wallow in the play's cynicism, but it's hard to begrudge anyone adding such an improvident measure of joy. There's something here that smacks of the truly Elizabethan, the way members of a close-knit company constantly try to outdo each other. This dynamic does mean that the sillier the part, the more it shines, so while Coffey's Angelo seems underrealized and Jessie Austrian's staunch administrator, Escalus, is clear but unshowy, Steinfeld's Lucio (a scoundrel with zero plot significance) got exit applause midscene.
Music director Steinfeld (everyone wears many hats) sets the cast in a number of Renaissance pieces—exquisite a cappella works by William Byrd—and this constant return to close harmony typifies the whole project. Codirectors Brody and Steinfeld move things zippily along; the set consists of six movable doors that whip around to provide confessional booths, ducal apartments and a labyrinthine jail complex. Actors must, of course, do double duty too, which allows Young to be both buttoned-up Isabella and the bra-flashing Mistress Overdone, or Steinfeld to be both the too-clever-by-half Lucio and the idiot Froth. It's a bare-bones production, but what they're laying bare is their own invention—our pleasure comes from watching them solve problems in their gleeful, commedia-inspired way. At one point, they even get the back of a door to play the recalcitrant prisoner Barnardine, and damned if that door isn't one of the better Barnardines I've ever seen.—Theater review by Helen Shaw