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BWW Review: Concept Overwhelms Content in Elevator Repair Service's MEASURE FOR MEASURE

Regarded by The Public Theater's artistic director Oskar Eustis as a resident company of the Astor Place venue, Elevator Repair Service's niche has always been productions with a clear focus on words, such as their fully staged complete-text reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," titled GATZ, or ARGUENDO, their legal vaudeville centered on documents pertaining to a Supreme Court case regarding strip clubs and the First Amendment.

Measure for Measure
Pete Simpson and Rinne Groff
(Photo: Richard Termine)

So it's rather appropriate that their first venture into Shakespeare premieres at the artistic home Joseph Papp founded as part of his mission to bring Shakespeare's plays to all New Yorkers.

In his program notes for ERS' new mounting of Measure for Measure, the company's artistic director (and stage director for this production) John Collins refers to himself as "something of a Shakespeare novice" who regards the playwright's scripted language as a "positively unnatural form of speech."

The primary concept for this showing came about, he says, when there weren't enough scripts for everyone at a rehearsal, so they found a website with the text and projected it on the wall for the actors to read as they performed. Naturally, the pacing was affected by how quickly or slowly the person at the computer scrolled down the page.

So with the help of a grant from the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation, interactive digital tools were created to modulate the tempo of each performance, as the actors (Rinne Groff, Lindsay Hockaday, Maggie Hoffman, Mike Iveson, Vin Knight, April Matthis, Gavin Price, Greig Sargeant, Scott Shepherd, Pete Simpson, and Susie Sokol) read their lines from teleprompters.

Measure for Measure
The Company (Photo: Richard Termine)

The Public's website says the production is performed with "Marx-Brothers-inspired slapstick," a baffling description since The Marx Brothers didn't perform slapstick. Nevertheless, set designer Jim Findlay fills the blank-walled stage with long wooden tables and candlestick telephones, suggesting a theatrical world that might have been created by Marx contemporaries (and occasional collaborators) like Ben Hecht or George S. Kaufman. Costume designer Kaye Voyce matches the feel with early 20th Century styles.

The story remains about an unfortunate Venetian named Claudio (Sargeant) who is sentenced to death by Lord Angelo (Simpson), the puritanical temporary ruler left in charge during the absence of the Duke (Shepherd), for impregnating his lover Juliet (Hockaday) without being married to her. When Claudio's sister Isabella (Groff), who is about to enter a nunnery, pleads to Claudio for her brother's life, the hypocritical ruler suggests that an evening of her favors would change his mind.

For most of the performance, which runs two hour and ten minutes without an intermission, actors race through their lines and staging, often barking words indecipherably into the phones. The lack of clarity seems intentional and while the visual may suggest Marx-style madcap mayhem, the absence of understandable wit makes the evening seem a frenetic blur.

But then everything slows down for the emotional scene when the distraught Isabella visits Claudio in jail, not knowing how she should respond to the proposition that would spare his life.

If at this point a viewer can moved by the story and characters, it is most likely from previous familiarity with the play, rather than anything ERS has presented leading up to it.

Experimentation in theatre should be encouraged at all levels and while this Measure for Measure appears to be a case of concept over content, nobody knows how this sort of thing will work until you put it up in front of an audience. If you're not satisfied with the results, you may still find the effort quite admirable.

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From This Author - Michael Dale