Jonathan Cake in Measure for Measure

 By:  Sarah Downs

The wonderful thing about Shakespeare is that he’s Shakespeare; the difficulty with Shakespeare is that he’s Shakespeare – wordy, complex, contradictory and of course, brilliant.  In Measure for Measure, Director  Simon Godwin mostly succeeds in resolving this contradiction in a minimalist production that honors the Elizabethan text even as it tries to liberate the words from an entrenched context.

As usual Shakespeare has contrived a plotline so convoluted it begins to try your patience.  Wanton Duke Vincentio (Jonathan Cake) after one particularly debauched night repents of his evil ways and decides to enforce a long abandoned law against fun.  I mean sex.  With his new-found strength of character, the Duke promptly skips town, leaving moralistic Judge Angelo (Thomas Jay Ryan) to do the enforcing.  Angelo  has imprisoned a man, Claudio (Leland Fowler) for having impregnated his girlfriend.  Claudio’s sister Isabella (Cara Ricketts) comes to plea for his release and Mr. anti-sex immediately tries to get some release of his own.  If Isabella, a novice nun, will sleep with him, Angelo will let Claudio go.  (Hmmmm, a self-righteous, sexually repressed politician turns out to be a hypocritical horn dog.  Where have we heard that one before?)  Duplicity, resistance, drama, earnest forbearance and comedy ensue.

The minimalist environment helps one to focus on the poetry of the text, but its music is hampered by the hodge podge of accents.  Jonathan Cake has the greatest success with the text, maneuvering through its density with a facility that feels utterly natural.  He neither hesitates nor rushes.   He is also devastatingly handsome, dashing and energetic.  Cara Ricketts as Isabella carries the weight of her central role with aplomb.  However, Isabella spends a lot of her time in turmoil, which does begins to stress one out.  Ricketts is an excellent actress but I longed to see a little more of the light you could see sparkling beneath the surface.  Thomas Jay Ryan conveys Judge Angelo’s struggle to maintain his dignity while fighting the creep within.  When his abandoned fiancée Mariana (a sweet-faced, coolly vulnerable Merritt Janson) first arrives on the scene you do have to wonder what she sees in this guy.

A group of talented, quick-witted supporting actors, many of them playing numerous roles, cavort through the the narrative with verve and color.  Each makes a mark, in particular a rascally Christopher Michael McFarland as Pompey Bum, brothel ‘tap man’ and schemer, although his New York accent sounds a bit forced.  Zachary Fine, who as both the by-the-book manspreading police officer Elbow and the perennially drunk prisoner Barnadine threatens to steal the show.

The space at the Polonsky Shakespeare Theater is fantastic.  With its black painted walls, high ceilings and raised central staging area the space feels open and intimate at the same time.  Paul Wills’ set design is inventive in its simplicity.  A hardwood floor that evokes posh surroundings and a set of modular ‘wall’ units of iron bars move swiftly and silently in various configurations, defining the playing space.  Michael Matthew Richards’ lighting design hews to the simplicity of the production design, but does not abandon color and dimension.  It alters the mood in an instant.

The program says this production contains sexually explicit content which some may find inappropriate for those under 16 years of age.  However, if you don’t enter the theater via the temporary back-stage brothel, you’re fine.  No explicit activities take place on stage.  Personally I found the brothel irrelevant.  I also found the play too long – I know that’s Shakespeare’s style, but it really became burdensome.  The energy and focus of the talented cast, however, carried us through the few dragging moments and when at denouement the Duke unwinds the tale and love triumphs, it did bring tears to my eyes.

Measure for Measure – directed by Simon Godwin (Associate Director, London’s National Theatre)

WITH Jonathan Cake, Cara Rickets, Thomas Jay Ryan, Oberon K.A. Adjepong, Kenneth de Abrew, Zachary Fine, Leland Fowler, Merritt Janson, January La Voy, Christopher Michael McFarland, Sam Morales and Haynes Thigpen; with musical performances by Drew Bastian, Robert Cowie and Osei Essed.

Sets and costumes by Paul Wills, lighting by Matthew Richards, composition and sound design by Jane Shaw, choreography by Brian Brook.

Presented by Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA); (Jeffrey Horowitz, Founding Artistic Director), Performing June 17 – July 16 at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, located at 262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NY 11217. Tickets are $85-95 (some premium seats available at $120 each) at,  or by telephone (866) 811-4111  and at the Polonsky box office.  New Deal tickets available; see website for more information. Running time: 2 ½ hours with one intermission.