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Measure for Measure

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Nicole Lewis and Meg Gibson
Photo by Joan Marcus.

It first sounds like a gimmick, and not a happy one: The Public Theater's Mobile Shakespeare Unit performing Measure for Measure, considered by many to be one of Shakespeare's "problem plays" and by admirers as having some of the harshest edges of any Shakespearean comedy. Sure, the story turns on miscarriages of justice on both sides of the bench, but is that enough to propel a dark and difficult work for audiences who probably aren't accustomed to the nuances writing like this demands? At Judson Memorial Church, where the production is playing through Saturday, it's hard to say for sure, but most signs point to yes.

The Church's high walls and arched ceilings, which add a dose of grandiosity to the proceedings but tend to swallow up even meticulously produced speech, are perhaps not ideal for communicating every aspect of this complex legal and moral story. Indeed, no matter where you sit in the arena-style setup of chairs, you're likely to miss a few words. But Michelle Hensley, who directed this show and is the artistic director of the Minneapolis-based Ten Thousand Things Theatre, has ensured that the underlying thoughts and feelings transcend acoustics.

That's crucial, as the production just finished a two-week tour of correctional facilities, homeless shelters, and centers for at-risk youth and the elderly—seldom ideal audiences. Yet watching Isabella (Nicole Lewis) plead with both the Duke of Vienna (Meg Gibson) and her deputy Angelo (Rob Campbell) for the life of her questionably imprisoned brother, Claudio (William Jackson Harper), it's easy to imagine how the disillusioned and disenfranchised could be moved to positive response. When the law looks the other way, as it so often does in the Duke's morality-legislating protectorate, isn't everyone some kind of a victim?

Because all the actors speak in largely unaffected (and "unpolished") tones, their troubles seem anything but remote. It also helps that Vivian Pavlos has designed almost all the show's costumes around a palette of drab greys, blacks, and whites that highlight both the right-or-wrong atmosphere and the sense of urban decay against which everyone is fighting. Most of the actors make their first appearances from seats in the audience, further accentuating the play's foundational notion that bureaucrats who can't tell the differences between the truly guilty and the truly innocent probably aren't trying very hard.

If the company has no trouble selling those kinds of messages, it stumbles in finding much additional depth in the play. Though Gibson is authoritative and strongly spoken as the Duke, the gender-switching doesn't really make sense as implemented here. They keep referring to her as she, so shouldn't it be the Duchess of Vienna? And any hints of romance, however forced, between the Duke and Isabella has been excised, stripping another layer of nuance from the work. There's also a certain flat evilness in Campbell's Angelo and baked-on crudity in Carson Elrod's Lucio and Barnardine that suffice more than they impress. Harper finds more varied colors as both Claudio and the police officer Elbow, as do Shalita Grant (as Escalus) and Lanna Joffrey as the spiked-saucy Mistress Overdone and despondent Mariana.

What they all do—with the help of actor Ruy Iskandar as a handful of supporting authority figures and Jackie Sanders as the just-offstage musician and sound-effects guru—is conjure a community of which you feel an integral part: as if you, too, are no further away from either exaltation or execution. You relate to these people because, even more than in many rigorously "modern" Shakespeare productions, you feel like they're one of you. Quibbles with acting are one thing, but when the show as a whole doesn't just work but spiritually connects you to both people onstage you never imagined you'd relate to and audiences in venues you may never visit (or fully understand), that's a success by any measure.

Measure for Measure
Through December 11
Judson Memorial Church, 55 Washington Square Park South
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