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Measure for Measure
Shakespeare in the Park

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Measure for Measure
Danai Gurira and Lorenzo Pisoni.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

The opening image of David Esbjornson’s new production of Measure for Measure at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, as the second show in The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park season, is indeed a striking one. An actor in a skintight black bodysuit, wearing a horned mask, rips a tarpaulin off a bed to reveal a pile of decaying bodies, which are then thrown aside as the half-naked Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, crawls out from under them wearing a look of supreme, flummoxed terror. As a beak-masked doctor stalks silently away, it is immediately obvious that the Black Death is what has cast an unbearable pall over the Duke’s beloved city.

In terms of declaring without delay exactly what the audience is in for, Esbjornson has succeeded beyond the dreams of mortal men. For plague delirium surely must be the most creative explanation possible for why this Measure for Measure isn’t merely a travesty, but is unquestionably among the very worst professional productions of Shakespeare I have ever seen. (We’re talking bottom five here — at best.)

The only concession Esbjornson deserves is that the play itself is not an easy one. Telling the story of the depressed Duke stepping down from his throne to leave ruling to his deputy Angelo, whom he is sure will make better decisions for the turpitude-infected populace, it has always trod an uneasy line between comedy and serious societal drama. Angelo’s ensuing moral crusade consumes Claudio, a young man who’s sentenced to death for impregnating his betrothed, and inspiring his nun sister, Isabella, to intervene on his behalf. She reveals Angelo as a hypocritical sleaze, but can’t prove it — her only choice seems to be to sacrifice her virginity to him in exchange for her brother’s life. The Duke, thankfully, has other ideas, and can help set things straight. But because everyone’s attitudes and actions are called into question, even the resolution of all this — which includes at least one marriage — is questionable at best.

But none of its squabbling about public and private morality, and the legislation thereof, justifies Esbjornson’s incomprehensible treatment. Let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that he does not abandon his contagion concept immediately, but unleashes ash-covered children about the stage throughout the first act, dangling dead rats by their tails, just to make sure we get what’s happening. (That Vincentio is wracked by guilt over degradation rather than physical decay is not apparently relevant to the director here. But since he abandons the plague entirely in the second half, maybe that isn’t really relevant to him, either. But like I said, never mind!)

Measure for Measure
Danai Gurira and Lorenzo Pisoni joined by Dakin Matthews, Annie Parisse, and Michael Hayden.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Instead, let’s focus the specifics that Esbjornson has provided over. The monotonous, invention-free staging, which uses trudging as its central movement metaphor, is determined to transform this traditional “problem play” into at best a turgid tragedy. The Elizabethan-generic set (by Scott Pask), which hundreds of directors have used without issue over the centuries, so confounds Esbjornson that he can create on it not a single interesting stage picture. Elizabeth Hope Clancy’s costumes are a toxic combination of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Young Frankenstein, and a low-budget bondage parlor. John Gromada’s sound design combines heavy metal and Gregorian chanting to ear-wrenching effect. Peter Kaczorowski has lit the action so it can barely be seen, making him one of the few identifiable heroes here.

Then there’s the acting. Had this entire company not just opened last week in the first of the Delacorte’s two repertory shows, Daniel Sullivan’s delightful mounting of All’s Well That Ends Well, I would refrain from mentioning most of their names to help them maintain some shred of professional credibility. But since their names are already out there, their exposure is unavoidable. John Cullum and Dakin Matthews, seasoned pros playing an old advisor named Escalus and an old provost, assert themselves admirably; André Holland and Annie Parisse suffice in bit parts as Claudio and Angelo’s spurned fiancée, Mariana. The news is far worse for everyone else.

Lorenzo Pisoni, a gifted young performer of chiseled attractiveness and boundless energy, lumbers mystified through every scene as Vincentio, and marshals neither authority as the Duke nor the sense that he understands anything he’s saying. (The usually masculine actor also makes Vincentio roundly effeminate, for no reason related to the plot or the production.) Danai Gurira looks and sounds even more consistently bewildered as Isabella, giving strained line readings — more frequently line shoutings, actually — utterly bereft of subtlety or personality. As Angelo, Michael Hayden deploys one facial expression and one tone of voice, neither of which conveys the character’s crusade for goodness or battle against his own inner demons.

Not even the comics get off easy. Tonya Pinkins, playing Mistress Overdone in a flame-red beehive wig, is bored and unengaged except when shrieking to shatter glass, coming across as a straitlaced secretary who thinks better of her whorehouse-madam costume the instant she gets to a Halloween party; the go-everywhere pimp, Pompey, is played by Carson Elrod as a Hell’s Angel working as a gas-station attendant. Reg Rogers’s Lucio is completely undefined, leaving the actor to fall back on his half-baked ham shtick, which has nothing discernible to do with the “fantastic” he’s supposed to be playing. Then again, given most of what surrounds him, that’s probably as wise a choice as any.

In fairness, Measure for Measure is well enough constructed that not even Esbjornson’s meddling with the script (he makes a handful of destructive edits as well) and common sense can fully defuse the impact of its final scene, and that leaves you with something positive to leave the theater and the park with. But five minutes of fulfillment preceded by two hours and 55 minutes of barely amateur, failing-grad-student-level theatre does not provide much solace. Like those imaginary bodies in Vincentio’s bed when the play begins, almost everything about this production feels as though it's just been left to rot.


Measure for Measure
Shakespeare in the Park

Through July 30
Delacorte Theater in Central Park - Enter Central Park at 81st Street and Central Park West or 70th Street and Fifth Avenue.
Performances begin at 8 PM - Performed in repertory for 8 continuous weeks with All's Well That Ends Well
Free tickets for Shakespeare in the Park are distributed via the free lines at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, and on the web via the Public Theater Virtual Ticketing system.
Current Performance Schedule: shakespeareinthepark.org