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Measure For Measure: An Elevator Repair Service Going Down With No Music To Sooth the Ride

Measure For Measure: An Elevator Repair Service Going Down With No Music To Sooth the Ride
Scott Shepherd, Maggie Hoffman.

Scott Shepherd and Maggie Hoffman. Photo credit: Richard Termine.

I’ve heard such great things about the stylistic approach to text by the well-regarded Elevator Repair Service theatrical company, so I was obviously intrigued by there adventurous take on Shakespeare’s difficult ‘problem’ play, Measure For Measure at The Public Theater downtown. First gaining notoriety in 2006 with the epic Gatz, a six hour staging based on, and consisting of the entire text of Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby“, I remember being impressed while looking back now, wishing I had taken the leap of faith and bought a ticket. Not sure why I didn’t but I vaguely remember feeling overwhelmed by the idea and its length. Ben Brantley of the New York Times called it “the most remarkable achievement in theater not only of this year but also of this decade” but I guess it just wasn’t enough to outweigh the commitment (I wasn’t the theatre-junkie that I am today back then).  

Pete Simpson, Rinne Groff

Pete Simpson and Rinne Groff. Photo credit: Richard Termine.

The ERS further established themselves as exciting experimentalists with their fresh recreation of the United States Supreme Court in Arguendo and the dark rendition of The Sound and the Fury . All of which I had the opportunity to see, but completely missed the boat for some reason. So now I have the chance, and the opportunity that this blog has given me.  What remains though, is the question: how will they handle the text of the classic centuries-old play, Measure For Measure by William Shakespeare? It’s a daunting task. One, I’m sure, was not taken lightly by this thoughtful group and their fearless leader. 

Rinne Groff 

Rinne Groff (center) and the company. Photo credit: Richard Termine

John Collins, the director of this production and the founder and artistic director of the company, took on this challenging project of bringing this renown ‘problem’ play to life after numerous discussions with the crew of ERS regarding the challenges and complex language of Shakespeare. They had a feeling that within the text there were far too many passages that are perceived as gibberish to our modern ear and sensibility. Causing, what he refers to as, a ‘disconnect’ between the written text and what hoops an actor must jump through to present these words to a modern audience. In an attempt to address this problem within this ‘problem’ play, Collins decided to direct his troop of actors to play around with pace and tone in order to bridge those un-required moments, and focus the attention on plot over clarity of dialogue. What they came up with in the end is an approach, that has various degrees of success, to rattle off lines at an alarming rate, turning them literally into gibberish. When not speed reading the lines, Collins took on a Hollywood screwball-style approach, with lines stylistically delivered in an over-the-top way that the text isn’t as accessible as what we are used to. What Collins and the actors hope in the final product is that these performative characterizations are seen and taken as amusing. One example is the foolish and annoying Lucio, played by Mike Iveson (Public’s Plenty). He saddles his text with a Jersey Shore drawl and deliveries it in such a way that negates the meaning. But sadly, as with most of their experimental ideas of ERS to Shakespeare, doesn’t quite deliver amusement or elicit chuckles, just a flatness prevails that falls heavy.  Their tactics fail to engage, and causes the brain, well, at least my brain, to tune out. 

Greig Sergeant

Greig Sergeant (center) and the company. Photo credit: Richard Termine

The company wanted to do the play justice without relying on well-worn classical tactics, pace, and theatrical dynamics. One of the ideas attempted here is to have the actors utilize teleprompters throughout, fixing their eyes on the screen overhead, reading and delivering their lines directly, especially in moments of fast delivery. The idea, it seems, is to move quickly past the lines and passages that don’t hold a lot of drive or forward moving narrative. The surprising result is not one of amusement or even relief. Thankfully, the text is projected at numerous moments on the three walls and sometimes the floor for us all to see, which helped keep us on track.  For all the speedy enactments and vaudevillian gestures, I found these moments dragged the production down, causing my ears and eyes to glaze over, tune out, and make each minute feel like five.
 MEASURE FOR MEASURE

The company of MEASURE FOR MEASURE. Photo by Richard Termine.

The biggest revelation thought, was that in reverse, when the delivery is slowed down to an excruciatingly glacial pace, there exists the closest thing to magic in the entire production. The pivotal scene, the one between Isabella (a very well-spoken and talented Rinne Groff) and Claudio (Greig Sergeant) in the prison discussing the immoral dilemma at the core of Measure For Measure is slowed down, and low and behold, that tactic caused the words to become pure, and the text more powerful. I can’t say it kept me leaning in for its entirety, but as a directional tool, it worked better then almost all the others. (For a much more fun romp through this immoral proposition, check out the musical, Desperate Measures at The York Theatre Company – click here for the review.)
Scott Shepherd

Scott Shepherd. Photo by Richard Termine.

This play is very timely though.  It is about justice and hypocrisy, and the limits of government control on sexual desire. It feels that a lot of opportunities to relate these ideas to our current political climate were nixed. Instead, a visual style, created by set designer Jim Findlay, lighting by Mark Barton and Ryan Seelig, sound by Gavin Price, and costumes by Kaye Voyce, is reminiscent of the classic 1940’s film, “My Girl Friday“, with the quick tempo at the start feeling lively and exciting.  Unfortunately, all that fun old-fashioned phone work initially employed flamed out quickly, leaving us to muddle through the confusing antics of this experimental production.  
Elevator Repair Service, Measure For Measure

Elevator Repair Service Photo: Richard Termine

Besides the glorious Groff, April Matthis (Public’s Hollow Roots) as Mariana holds it together against all odds. Scott Shepherd (The Wooster Group’s Hamlet) as The Duke, Pete Simpson (Public’s Straight White Men) as Angelo, and all the rest energetically dive in and do their best within the theoretical framework established by director, Collins, but the slapstick movements and performances wear thin, almost as quickly as the lines delivered. It’s a long haul, over two hours with no intermission, to get to the end of this story.  The problems that exist structurally in this play are not rectified, but still very present, with a few new ones added on. 
Collins writes in the program notes of “a kind of music in those sentences and a deeply felt poetry that pulses with emotional truth”, and I agree whole-heartedly with that observation. That is the gloriousness of Shakespeare, but sadly, for the most part, that is what is lost in this strange, sometimes wonderful, circus-like production of Measure For Measure. It is a unique and cerebral approach, filled with wit and cleverness, and I applaud ERS for their bravery, their theoretical ideas, and their willingness to experiment. Unfortunately, the poetry and the musicality is erased, and we are left with a confusing chaotic mess that at moments feel too speedy for its own good, and deadly slow and dull at the same time. If you don’t know this play thoroughly and intuitively, and you didn’t see the seedy but fun production at TFANA earlier this year, read up on your Shakespeare before arriving, or you’ll find yourself dazed and confused, dreaming of the moment the teleprompter tells all to exit.                                                                                               

For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

Off Broadway
@#frontmezzjunkies

My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my last...so far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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