Fiasco Theater is an energetic group of actors full of the best kind of fun a ticket can buy. If there is a movement to make Shakespeare accessible, this company is right up there with the best of them; they seem committed to inviting us to the party. This is not done by oversimplification or spoon feeding; instead it comes from a steadfast focus on the depth and clarity of each character under the direction by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld.
In the company’s own words, Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s “darkest comedies [that] explores the relationship between the powerful and the powerless.” But a deeper dip into the approach and success of the show is revealed in the “Director’s Note” in the program. Measure for Measure explores the complexity of city life, “where people are divided by physical, social and psychological barriers.” In Measure for Measure the haves and have-nots, the pious and the sinners, are forced to interact. The ensemble of artists creates not only the play, but the world it lives in.
The first thing we see when we enter the theater is a juxtaposition of intimacy and space. A series of freestanding doors on wheels delineates the players’ space; just large enough to morph to each scene, but small enough not to dwarf the actors. This is framed by the entire depth of the theater, which goes back quite a distance to a large brick wall. The brick is lit as if a sun were shining on it, a dramatic effect in an otherwise understated lighting design by Tim Cryan. The set, by Derek McLane, is perfect for the purpose. Each of the doors is unique, and as the actors pull them into place or walk through them, it starts a chain reaction in our imagination that fills in the rest of the set. Seamlessly the choreography of these doors creates the Duke’s “office,” a brothel, a nunnery and a jail. Their movement lets them materialize and then recede.
From the first second the actors welcome you aboard by coming out on stage – with no fourth wall – we can hardly say they break it if they haven’t established it yet. During this unique pre-beginning the actors wave to their friends, throw kisses and seem really happy to see us. Then they go behind the doors and we partially see them transition from who they are in life to who they came here to be. When a gong is rung they come out and before the play begins they sing a song from Shakespeare’s time. It’s a lovely transition for the audience from their own lives into Fiasco’s Measure for Measure and their voices are beautiful.
The actors are double-cast and, like the double-sided puppets of my childhood, their other sides/characters are changed with simple touches of costume and accessories. This underlines the idea that we all have these different sides. Underneath the whore is a nun (Isabella/Mistress Overdone, played by Emily Young), a religious man and a powerful leader (duke, who pretends to be the friar, played by Andy Grotelueschen) and the other side of the harsh temporary leader Angelo is Elbow (Paul L. Coffey), the worker bee who takes great joy in carrying out the harsh proclamations, or at least being the keeper of the jail keys.
This is the first time I have seen more than one side of Angelo’s character; usually he is just dark and lecherous. Paul L. Coffey reveals Angelo’s many layers; his fight with his conscious is believable and interesting. Andy Grotelueschen is charming as the duke and the friar. Emily Young is as funny as Mistress Overdone as she is serious as the almost-a-nun Isabelle. But the character who stood out the most and on which much of the humor seemed destined was Lucio (Ben Steinfeld). Like the whole cast, Ben Steinfeld is a physical actor; his falls and double takes, as both Lucio and Froth, started much of the audience’s laughter. If you love Shakespeare or are Shakespeare weary, fear not. This is the fun version; just as deep, but accessible and full of whimsy.
Measure for Measure – by William Shakespeare; co-directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld
WITH: Jessie Austrian (Escalus & Marianna), Noah Brody (Claudio & Pompey), Paul L. Coffey (Angelo & Elbow), Andy Grotelueschen (Duke Vincentio), Ben Steinfeld (Lucio & Froth) and Emily Young (Isabella & Mistress Overdone).
Set design by Derek McLane; costumes by Whitney Locher, lighting by Tim Cryan and musical direction by Ben Steinfeld; properties by Sarah Dowling; production stage manager Anne Mcpherson: assistant stage manager Jacquelyn A. Cookfair; directing assistant Vanessa Lancellotti. Presented by New York’s Fiasco Theater at The New Victory Theater. Through – March 16. Running time: 2 1/2 hours (with one intermission)