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A CurtainUp Review
Measure for Measure
By Les Gutman
This summer's Shakespeare in the Park is notable — especially, perhaps, after last summer — for the absence of a megastar who draws long lines to the Delacorte. That's good news for those who love Shakespeare but are not inclined to camp out overnight on Central Park West (or to become summer "supporters" to whom tickets are provided). It's also good news for the bright lights in the cast who don't have quite the same wattage as a Pacino or a Streep just yet.
In David Esbjornson's surprisingly inventive "Measure for Measure," it is not even in the roles one might expect that these lights shine the brightest. In this production, the play and indeed its central argument is constructed on the shoulders of two aborning stars, Danai Gurira, who plays Isabella with an intensity that makes her complicated moral compass impossible to cast aside, and Carson Elrod, whose advocacy of a very different morality as the clown-pimp Pompey, becomes the principal counterpoint. The machinations of Vincentio (Lorenzo Pisoni) and Angelo (Michael Hayden) can't hold a candle to these two. (And lest one disregard the "aborners," it bears remembering that exactly thirty-five years ago, it was an even more unknown Meryl Streep who was cast as Isabella.)
The timeliness of stories about sexual shenanigans and moral duplicity among society's leaders hardly requires discussion. Maybe that explains why Messrs. Pisoni and Hayden, both fine actors who handle the play's language well, are increasingly dull here. Whatever the reason, Mr. Esbjornson has wisely focused his energies on Isabella's life-and-death crisis, in all of its ferocity, and offset it with Pompey-sponsored debauchery. The director's flourishes and embellishments are meticulous in their detail, starting well before the first line is spoken, and continuing throughout. One could fault it for a lack of follow-through -- the attention grabbing elements of the play's opening oddly disappear from the production soon thereafter — but not for a dearth of imagination.
The comedy is not limited to Pompey by any means. David Manis does especially fine work as Elbow, nimbly navigating the tricky language to make it fun, and Tonya Pinkins seems far better suited to her task as Mistress Overdone than she was to the Countess of Rousillon in All's Well. (Alas, I described Reg Rogers' performance in All's Wellas "one note," and I'm sorry to report he's still playing that same note here.) Pinkins has a moment I'll remember for quite a while, but perhaps the play's most unexpectedly memorable scene is played between the executioner Abhorson (Jordan Lund), his newly-appointed right-hand man, Pompey, and Barnardine (Lucas Caleb Rooney), described in the script as a "dissolute" prisoner but, to my mind, just one with a moral compass pointed in a hysterically funny direction.
As the old pillar's of Vienna society, John Cullum and Dakin Matthews are as solid as rocks. As for the women, other than Isabella, this is a play in which they are all in the back seat, but Annie Parisse, Kristen Connolly and Caitlin O'Connell make the most of their parts.
Scott Pask's set for Measure is built on the same bones as All's Well, with the metal grill work replaced by quite solid wood adornments. Other than some hyper-kinetic scenic choreography involved in moving the two staircases around, it serves the production well. Lighting, again by Peter Kaczorowski, is moody and effective. Both costumes (Elizabeth Hope Clancy) and music (John Gromada) reflect the play's schizoid nature -- ranging from quite buttoned up to impossibly wild. All to good effect.
Conventionally, while All's Well ends equivocally, Measure is tied up nicely with the sort of ribbon Shakespeare likes to use to conclude his comedies. That finalé is in place, but not without one last thought from David Esbjornson, via the terrific Ms. Gurira. There will be those who will quarrel with this production and some of the jolts it provides, but I think most will find it a very interesting as well as enjoyable night out.
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