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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
MEASURE FOR MEASURE
at the New Victory

CHASTITY ENFORCED
By MATT WINDMAN

  Andy Grotelueschen and Jessie Austrian/ Ph: Joan Marcus

Although the marathon of high-profile Shakespeare revivals that consumed the fall theater season has finally ended, if you have the stomach for more iambic pentameter, the Fiasco Theater, the tiny but mighty ensemble that scored raves for its spare, streamlined staging of the convoluted romance Cymbeline, has returned with an equally intimate and imaginative take on the dark and sinister drama Measure for Measure.

One of Shakespeare’s so-called “problem plays,” Measure for Measure deals with political hypocrisy and the dangers of ultra-conservatism. It opens with a mysterious decision from the Duke of Vienna to leave the city and entrust all his power to the morally strict Angelo, who insists on enforcing a long-relaxed law against premarital sex. Isabella, on the verge of joining a nunnery, is enlisted to beg Angelo to not kill her brother Claudio for impregnating his fiancée. Angelo agrees to spare Claudio, providing that Isabella will have sex with him. The Duke, who is still in town disguised as a priest, attempts to save Claudio's life and Isabella's chastity through elaborate plotting schemes.

The play has an unusually contemporary and disturbing feel to it, which is probably why it has received so many revivals in recent years. Just a few include the Globe Theatre’s 2005 production at St. Ann’s Warehouse with Mark Rylance, Theatre for a New Audience’s 2010 production with Jefferson Mays and the 2011 Shakespeare in the Park staging directed by David Esbjornson. I have seen productions that reset the play to post-Katrina New Orleans, 1980s Times Square and the Old West, all going to great lengths to stress its threatening atmosphere of abusive power and moral corruption.

As co-directed by ensemble members Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, Fiasco offers an accessible rendition that was clearly intended to appeal to a wide audience. In fact, the staging is being produced as part of the New Victory’s annual season of family-friendly programming. Other than one scene with the condemned prisoner Barnadine that is unnecessarily played up as slapstick, this proves to be a clear, fluid and altogether engaging production. Whereas Cymbeline revolved around a chest, out of which numerous props emerged, the scenic design of Measure for Measure is framed by a series of doors that are on wheels and can be freely moved to alter the composition of the stage.

Six actors are employed, nearly all of whom are double cast. Although they are all talented, some are better suited to their roles than others. While Emily Young is perfectly fine as the scandalous Mistress Overdone, she does not convey the uncompromising integrity required to convincingly play Isabella, who is unafraid to debate with Angelo over Claudio’s fate and later denounces Claudio when he begs for her to submit to Angelo’s will.

Andy Grotelueschen makes for an unusually gentle and unsure Duke Vincentio, giving the impression that the character means well but has no clue what he is doing, which explains why his plans so often go awry. Paul L. Coffey gives the most shaded performance as Angelo, portraying him as a bespectacled, seemingly respectable chap who proves unable to restrain himself once in a position of authority.

It’s worth noting that Fiasco’s next gig has already been announced. The company will perform the Sondheim fairy tale musical Into the Woods at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre next winter, assumedly with the same low-budget aesthetic and sense of ingenuity. 

 


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