William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure is a complex play, dealing particularly overtly with moral and political issues. Like most Shakespeare, it's intricately constructed, and, while it can be enjoyed on a broad level, the colors beneath the surface are what give the play its strength.
Nona Shepphard's new production of the play at 45 Below struggles between two warring concepts, the visual elements of the production and the emotional resonance of the story, much the same way the play's characters do.
Shepphard's Measure for Measure is well realized visually. Every inch of 45 Below has become a part of the playing space, with the audience seated on the floor or on steps while the action happens within and around them. Though there's but a modicum of scenery (designed by Shepphard herself), the wide playing area and Sebastian Barraclough's lights suggest a number of varied settings. Shepphard keeps the action moving at a startlingly brisk pace, almost piling scenes on top of each other, and utilizing the playing space - including built-in pillars, stairs, doorways, and alcoves - in any number of creative ways.
Unfortunately, Shepphard's staging is so effectively realized that the play itself tends to get lost in the shuffle. The story about the Duke of Vienna's solution to the vice crippling his city - turning control over to his chief deputy to follow the letter of the law - is often of secondary consideration, when it comes through at all. Because the playing space has the tendency to swallow lines (especially when the actors are located far away from where you're sitting), most of the actors are required to shout, even when it may be inappropriate.
Shepphard has also double and triple cast some roles, to an often confusing and frequently messy effect. In fact, it seems that it was for little reason other than to have Isabella (Samantha Wright, Kristin Proctor, and Tali Friedman), the sister of the Claudio (Joe Paulik), condemned for impregnating his beloved Juliet (Keri Ann Murphy), court three different potential "suitors" in the overlong dance that ends the show.
Above all else, though, it's in the acting where most of the production's problems are found. The actors - even when shouting - all manage to articulate their lines beautifully, capturing every syllable of Shakespeare's lines, but too often the emotion underneath is lacking. Measure for Measure is filled with dramatic confrontations about sex, obligation, and countless other subjects in between, but few of them play here. Like the vocal production, most everything seems to exist on one level; for most of the show, the comedy isn't very funny, and the drama isn't particularly dramatic.
Most of this changes, though, in the final scene when the actors, after a scene change, confront each other and the audience head on. The audience, jolted back to reality as their seating area is usurped by the actors, becomes a real part of the action, and when the performers play off of this, the shouting stops, and the most intriguing and meaningful dramatic production of the evening occurs.
That scene, in the grand tradition of Shakespeare's comedies, ties up the loose ends and sends the audience up the stairs and out of the theatre on a high note. It is through temperance and compromise - in theatre in general, as well as in Measure for Measure - that the greatest of problems are solved, a lesson Shepphard got across well here, if perhaps too late.
The Acting Shakespeare Company