By Tulis McCall

As I watched the Elevator Repair Service’s production of Measure for Measure at the Public Theater the other night, I experiences a blast from the past.

Back in the 1980’s, The Potters Field Theater Company, with whom I worked, decided to stage a Shakespeare Marathon that was on the clock.  The goal was to make it into the Guinness Book as the fastest reading of Shakespeare.  The company members did a sort of tag team reading of all the plays.  They were bivouacked in one of the Macy’s store windows and the reading was piped out onto the street.  They read so fast that, as you approached said window, it sounded like a cross between birds and bees.  It was a sort of melodic buzzing.

This is exactly the sound I heard in this production.  IT appeared that the actors were speaking for speed instead of meaning.  As a matter of fact this is an exercise that actors do in the theatre when they are zeroing in on their physical cues – entrances, exits, prop handling etc.  We call it a speed through.  It is traveling point to point in the play.  But that is a rehearsal technique.  Not intended for performance.

Even with the best of intentions, under the direction of John Collins the cast delivers their lines with such speed that for much of the two hours (no intermission) they are unintelligible.   This may explain the appearance of text scrolling down the walls of the set from time to time.  This is not decoration. The audience actually reads.  We don’t mean to.  We are compelled.

I have seen several of ERS previous productions, The Sound and The Fury, The Sun Also Rises and Gatz,  all of which were a fantastic combination of performance/reading.  Stunning in simplicity and elegance.  I anticipated being surprised with this production as well.

I was, but not in the way for which I had hoped.

Measure for Measure is one of those plays that depends on the old saw of disguise that is nothing more than a hat or in this case a hood.  The Duke (Scott Shepherd) of Vienna leaves town to return in disguise so as to spy on his second in command Angelo (Pete Simpson) who is plain and simple not a good guy.  The Duke moves somewhat faster than Harvey Weinstein’s board of directors in this endeavor and manages to unmask Angelo in a mere couple of hours.  In addition he manages to release a falsely accused man Claudio (Greig Sargeant) and steal the heart of Claudio’s sister Isabella (Rinne Groff) – but not before he does a bit of duplicitous sleight of hand himself.  The end.

Somewhere along the line we are supposed to align ourselves with Isabella, whose backbone never bends even when her brother’s life is at stake.  We come close to this in the intimate scene between the siblings, but this pause is only a blip on the screen of an otherwise chaotic stream of events.

This is another one of those times when, as John Randolph always counseled – “one must never blame the actors.”  This cast gives it everything they have.  The pacing, however, does them in.  We cannot follow what we do not understand.  Or we cannot follow with the full force that we wish.  The plot is evident enough for us to understand the conclusion.  By the time it arrives, however, we are almost mad with the desire to flee the sound of this nearly consonant free buzzing and rush out into the night to be soothed by New York’s street cacophony.

Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare, Directed by John Collins

CAST: Rinne Groff, Lindsay Hockaday, Maggie Hoffman, Mike Iveson; Vin Knight; April Matthis, Gavin Price, Greig Sargeant, Scott Shepherd, Pete Simpson and Susie Sokol

Sets by Jim Findlay, Lighting by Mark Barton and Ryan Seelig, Costumes by Kaye Voyce

The Public Theater (Artistic Director, Oskar Eustis; Executive Director, Patrick Willingham) present MEASURE FOR MEASURE created by Elevator Repair Service, part of The Public’s Astor Anniversary Season at their landmark downtown home on Lafayette Street, celebrating 50 years of new work at 425 Lafayette Street and the 50th Anniversary of HAIR. The show continues performances through Sunday, November 12.