Theater Review: ERS’s Measure for Measure Plays a Losing Game

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Elevator Repair Service’s Measure for Measure. Photo: Richard Termine/Photo by Richard Termine

In the program for Measure for Measure, now playing at the Public Theater, John Collins, artistic director of Elevator Repair Service — the downtown theater company known for its exhilarating de- and re-constructions of classic novels, including the epic and acclaimed Gatz — says, “A few years ago, I conceded it was time for my experimental ensemble to meet William Shakespeare.”

Conceded — the word implies a kind of giving up, and Collins confessed in the post-show talkback I saw that he found Shakespeare intimidating. That’s not necessarily a bad place to begin: It’s thrilling to see a group of artists throw themselves into a project where there’s the actual risk that the whole thing might go terribly wrong. This is ERS’s working model — “reckless and playful,” as Collins explained: “We really don’t know how it’s going to end up.” When much of today’s theater is produced as if by assembly line, that’s remarkable. But in this case, some things have gone pretty seriously wrong.

This Measure for Measure is inscrutable unless you’re already deeply familiar with the play. Collins was — and it seems, still is — overwhelmed by Shakespeare’s language. He calls it “challenging and complex” (sure) and “positively unnatural” (well…), and concludes that it “can’t possibly be thoroughly understood and processed in real-time by any but the Elizabethan scholar.” That’s a self-defeating premise. Yet ERS has built an entire production on the grounds that its language can’t really be understood. In a weird paradox, a confessed “Shakespeare novice” has created a production for card-carrying Shakespeare nerds only. If you are that, you’re likely to be equally fascinated and frustrated by ERS’s shenanigans. If you’re not, you’ll probably leave believing that you might as well give up trying to grok this Shakespeare guy.

Here’s what’s going on at the Public’s LuEsther: Eleven actors are reading the text of Measure for Measure (with some cuts) off teleprompters. You can twist around in your seat and see the main prompter screen hanging at the back of the room. Scott Shepherd (an ERS fixture and technically brilliant actor who here plays the Duke) has designed a software program that controls the speed at which the play’s text scrolls on the screens. The actors — who we are to believe haven’t memorized their lines — must follow along with the teleprompter’s pace. If it slows down, so do they (sometimes excruciatingly). If it speeds up, they follow suit (to the point of manic unintelligibility).

Experimenting with the text’s tempo evidently gave Collins his route into the material — a bit of an irony since the result of his experiment is that the audience is often kept out. Our ability to engage with the language’s meaning or its music is effectively kneecapped. In the end, Collins is more interested in the game he’s playing with Shakespeare’s text than in its content. At the talkback, every question was about the technology, the prompters, the wacky speed variations. Not a single one was about story, character, or the painfully relevant ideas that actually do make Measure for Measure a play for our present moment.

Granted, it’s a weird and many-layered story. Briefly: The Duke of Vienna, seeing his city going morally to seed, skips town for a while, granting his authority to the puritanical Angelo. Angelo immediately institutes old laws that punish lechery (i.e. sex out of wedlock) with death. A young man named Claudio, who’s gotten his fiancée pregnant, is soon sentenced. His sister Isabella — a young nun-in-training — comes to Angelo to plead for his life. Angelo then yields to a corrupt impulse: He offers Claudio’s life in exchange for Isabella’s virginity. Ultimately the Duke — who’s actually been in town all along, but disguised — cooks up a creepy, manipulative plot to save Claudio, keep Isabella safe, catch Angelo out, and reclaim his own authority. In the end, everyone pairs off and things are, seemingly, hunky-dory … Hey, it’s a comedy. But it’s one of Shakespeare’s most troubling riffs on the comic conclusion.

Authority and corruption, vice and virtue, justice and mercy, the hypocrisy of the powerful — there’s so much potential resonance here that it’s maddening to watch the ERS production skate across the play’s surface. Since Collins thinks we won’t get the jokes anyway, characters full of comic wisdom — most notably Lucio (Mike Iveson) — are forced to race through their dialogue under the iron rule of the teleprompter. (This Measure’s humor comes not from Shakespeare but from the production’s vaudevillian trappings — His Girl Friday accents and Buster Keaton–esque lazzis that are sometimes quite funny, but will only get you so far.) Granted, it’s amusing (once or twice) to watch an actor motormouth through a scene. But you know what would be funnier? The scene itself, given a new shape.

Some of the ERS ensemble do manage to rise above the gimmickry. Scott Shepherd and Pete Simpson, as the Duke and Angelo respectively, consistently transcend the production’s flattening effects. Along with April Matthis (underused in two small roles), they have a natural feeling for the depth and nuance — not to mention the sheer, acrobatic joy — of Shakespeare’s language. Would that the same could be said for Rinne Groff (Isabella), who reads her lines with such dogged flatness that she often feels like a somnambulist. How can Collins turn the woman at the moral center of the play into a robot, while allowing her male counterparts the full dynamic scope of their humanity?

What’s the saying, though? “A broken clock is right twice a day.” Or a scrolling screen is compelling 25 percent of the time. Where this uneven Measure succeeds is in illuminating the character of the Duke. Scott Shepherd, an immensely intelligent actor, understands that the Duke is the play’s real director. He hijacks the drama halfway through, shoehorning it into the form of a “comedy” while leaving behind him a wake of emotional and spiritual destruction.

It’s a devilish meta-twist that Shepherd himself designed the teleprompter software: The Duke built the very program that runs the play. The text slows down when he wants it to slow down; music plays when he wants it to play. At the finale, when the Duke reveals Claudio (still alive!) to his tearful sister (who at that point thinks he’s dead), Shepherd pounds a button on one of the set’s tables that suddenly floods the stage with pink light while a smooth, jazzy tune strikes up in the background. The ensemble stares blankly at this charming, narcissistic maestro, drunk on power. It’s the Duke’s world: They, and we, are all just trapped in it.

There’s an idea from the deep core of Measure for Measure. In this production, it emerges not simply through technical trickery but when an actor invests in the words he’s speaking much more than his director does. Perhaps Collins should have heeded Lucio’s warning:

Our doubts are traitors
And make us lose the good we oft might win
By fearing to attempt.

Theater: ERS’s Measure for Measure Plays a Losing Game