A CurtainUp Review
Measure for Measure
By Les Gutman
The brisk eastward breeze at the Delacorte Theater sets one to wondering if it blew in from the Windy City with director Mary Zimmerman and her fine creative team for this rendition of Measure for Measure. One thing's for certain: she's a keen, skilled helmsman, who has no intention of letting the wind out of the sails. Finding the right tack for this Shakespearean "problem" play is not always easy, but Zimmerman makes it glide. Whether that's a good thing or not depends upon one's willingness to shove the problems under the carpet. If one headed into the park in search of sticky moral parodoxes, one is likely to go home empty handed. If not, one will be engaged by the entertainment.
When the Duke of Vienna, Vincentio (Joe Morton), his moral leadership crumbling, decides to take a sabbatical, he appoints the pious Angelo (Billy Crudup) to rule. Instead of leaving, however, Vincentio goes undercover as a friar. Almost immediately, Angelo has Claudio (Daniel Pino) arrested and condemned to death -- for impregnating his fiancée Juliet (Cote de Pablo). Claudio's beautiful sister, Isabella (Sanaa Latham), a novitiate, pleads for her brother's life, to no avail until Angelo falls for Isabella. He announces Claudio can be saved if Isabella will yield her virginity to him.
The disguised Vincentio overhears Isabella as she explains to her brother that this is not a price she is willing to pay. Vincentio concocts a scheme whereby another woman, Mariana (Felicity Jones), already in love with Angelo, will be sent to Angelo's dark bedroom. But Angelo decides to kill Claudio anyway, and again Vincentio intervenes, having the head of a dead man who looks like Claudio sent to the palace. Sharing only enough information to keep his scheme afloat, Vincentio "returns" to Vienna undisguised, and sorts most everything out: ordering Angelo to marry Mariana, Claudio to marry Juliet and taking Isabella as his own wife.
The simple schematic of Measure for Measure's court plot reveals a messy web of ethical issues that can be confounding and/or enlightening. Shakespeare has also interwoven a complex but vivid (and comic) array of atmospherics. In program notes, Zimmerman acknowledges that her take bends to the play's lighter side, dismissing its opportunities for cynicism. One can quibble with this decision, but I prefer to take it as a given. Her Duke is playing a game, seemingly aware everything will come out all right in the end. (It will, of course, so long as you ignore the intervening anguish he causes.)
The real problem in this production is not in the concept or direction but in the mixed bag of performances. Joe Morton is especially strong, commanding the stage as Vincentio. He is matched by the resonant performance of Herb Foster as his elder advisor, Escalus, and also by Christopher Donohue's Provost. The show's clowns are thoroughly delicious: John Pankow as the rascal Lucio and Christopher Evan Welch as Pompey, in particular, and Tom Aulino and Daniel Pearce (as Froth) in their more limited roles. But the central figures of Angelo and Isabella are disappointing. Billy Crudup is a fine actor, here miscast, shrinking under the weight of the Shakespearean demands. His youth combined with his uni-dimensional performance render his conversion from prude to sinner unbelievable at best and unnoticeable at worst. Sanaa Latham, certainly possessing the physical attributes required, never finds the rhythms, or the heart, in her role. Of the remaining significant characters, Felicity Jones is a standout. The cast's strong suits are able to sustain the action, but the weaker links leave us with a pretty hollow core.
Daniel Ostling's Miesian set -- steel frames, some filled with screens, suggesting doors and walls -- doesn't look like it would go far, even in a hurricane, but its simplicity aids Zimmerman's cogent storytelling. So does T. J. Greckens's lighting, which helps the chore of scene-setting in this cinematically-rendered staging. Mara Blumenfeld's costumes blend vaguely period outfits for the blue-bloods with vaguely contemporary clothing for the low-lifes. It's an interesting mix. The show's sound design is successful insofar as it overcomes the inherent outdoor acoustical issues, but it does so at the expense of clarity -- even at close range, all voices, wherever the source, is heard through the same set of speakers.