The Text is King

02/22/2010 3:30 PM |

In Arin Arbus' compelling, contemporary and pitch-perfect new production of Measure for Measure (through March 14), the actors wear modern dress: gray suits, blue jeans, black skirts, and other unfussy costumes. The Duke on 42nd Street, a black box, provides an unadorned stage on which the play's convoluted plotting unfurls; Arbus leaves it mostly empty: sometimes a desk appears, or a few chairs. Eschewing a clutter of details, period or otherwise, she stays out of the play's and the actors' ways, letting their combined mastery reveal the work's wit and political relevance.

The key line in Shakespare's scathing, ca. 1604 seriocomedy comes early in Act II: "some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall." Grappling with a powerful, hypocritical man who enforces unjust laws and then bends them for his own pleasure, the play is politically sharp and deliciously current—as is all great Shakespeare, so in tune was he with the universalisms of human nature.

The Duke of Vienna (Jefferson Mays) pretends to skip town for urgent business—in truth, he hangs around "disguised" as a monk (as Clark Kent hid his superheroic persona behind thick specs, so can the Duke cloak his nobility beneath, er, a cloak)—leaving the stern Angelo (Rocco Sisto) in his stead, to clean up the rampant debauchery that has overtaken the city. "A man whose blood is very snow-broth" who "when he makes water his urine is congealed ice," Angelo's first order of business is the arrest of Claudio (LeRoy McClain), a young gentleman, for the crime of impregnating his "fornicatress," for which he is sentenced to death. After Angelo falls in love with Claudio's sister, Isabella (Elisabeth Waterson), a virtuous nun-in-waiting who comes to plea for her brother's life, he offers to let the whoopeemaker live if she'll lie with him and let him to get to know her. You know, in the biblical sense.

From there, the plot only complicates, with the wryly commented-upon deathrow drama, played out in conversational fisticuffs, punctuated by digressive comic episodes. (The complicated and at times sloppy plot unravels rivetingly after intermission.) Angelo, as the ostensibly righteous but truly corrupt deputy, naturally evokes David Vitter or Larry Craig or any number of contemporary scandalized politicos, suggesting perhaps why the esteemed Theatre for a New Audience, responsible for last season's hot-ticket Othello (also directed by Arbus), would choose to revive this work now.

Trembling and wide-eyed, with a command of English to make Americans blush, Mays makes an excellent king, while John Keating—an Irish Kramer—and John Christopher Jones—an aural ringer for Don Knotts—expertly supply the comic relief as Pompey and Elbow with a practiced, worn-in rapport. Sisto, as Angelo, plays the role with the sternness of a humorless priest, ruptured by private moments of hyperventilating lust. Sisto played The Messenger in this past summer's Shakespeare in the Park production of The Bacchae, one of the two master thespians who supplied dignity to a show otherwise marred by Jonathan Groff's brattiness and Anthony Mackie's ceaseless shouting. There, he was a sore thumb; here, his talent is matched line for line by his fellow performers.

Last year, David McVicar salvaged the sullied Verdi opera Il Trovatore at the Met by staying out of its way, allowing the glorious music to speak for itself. Arbus does the same for Measure for Measure, which the Times' Charles Isherwood has called "one of Shakespeare's more laboriously plotted works, which fits the simplistic rubric of 'problem play' for more than one reason." As though mistrustful of the text's strengths, Joanne Akalaitis suffocated The Public's Bacchae with modern attitudes, modern dance, and Philip Glass' modern music. But Arbus, like McVicar, knows: Shakespeare, as with Verdi or Euripides, doesn't need a lot of help—he just needs some terrific actors. And, here, that's what he gets.

(photo credit: Theatre for a New Audience)