February 10th, 2010

La Loge

Measure For Measure

Last night, before the Snowpocalypse started, but not before the panic, we got on the subway with a lot of other prophylactically bundled-up and snow-booted people and went to see Measure for Measure at the Duke theatre.

But first, a New York anecdote.

I was standing in the 12 items or under line at Fairway (and had been for 15 minutes) when a young woman flashed a card at me and said, "I'm from the New York Post.  Are you here shopping for the storm?"

I looked at her for a beat, WTF, and said, "I lived in Massachusetts for 30 years.  Snow doesn't frighten me.  What's a foot?  Nothing."  At which she looked at me WTF and passed on to the old lady behind, who had a wheelie cart full of cans and veggies, and of course she is afraid of snow and should be, because for her it's a broken hip waiting to happen.  But most of the people clogging Fairway like I've never seen, not even the day before Thanksgiving?  Get over it, people.  This is NYC, not Saskatchewan.

Anyway.  Measure for Measure.  Coleridge hated it:  "The comic and tragic parts equally border on the [hateful]--the one being disgusting, the other horrible."  Chambers speaks of how the Duke tortures Isabel, Hazlitt announces that Shakespeare was the least moral of all writers because he showed himself to be in sympathy with all the characters except the stern moralist Antonio.  And nobody knows what to make of Isabella.  I've seen it three times now, and I have yet to see a truly satisfying Isabella.

Didn't see one last night, either, although Elisabeth Waterston certainly did her best.  She came down somewhere between a cold fish and a woman whose passions were all in her head, which is a fair enough reading of the part.  If only her voice were more flexible (she tends towards monotone, even when she's being impassioned) and she weren't quite so skinny.  It could have made her vulnerable and ascetic, but she kept smoothing her incredibly long hands over her incredibly tiny abdomen (I swear she's got a canopic jar in her dressing room), and it was just distracting.  I do have to say, though, that her WTF face when the Duke proposed to her at the end was perfectly priceless and utterly justified.

Despite the fact that nobody was absolutely solid on their lines (the play is still in previews), the rest of the performances were awesome.  It was a modern-dress production, which meant that the men came off better than the women, but since it's a man's play, that actually worked for me.  The Duke was a kind of charming monster, gleefully playing with people's lives from motives that sounded good, but were not based on any real knowledge of or sympathy with actual human nature.  The way he forced Isabella to forgive Angelo was supposed to teach her Christian charity.  He was clearly enchanted with his own cleverness, and didn't see that the lesson humiliated her as well, and couldn't understand why she didn't fall into his arms when he went down on his knee to her.  Jefferson Mays played the Duke.  I haven't seen his act before, but I hope I see him act again.

Ditto Rocco Sisto, whose Angelo was absolutely pitch-perfect.  He was tall, he was grey-haired, he had lips you could post a letter through, he moved as though his underwear were double-starched.  He knew what was right and what was wrong and had been suppressing his emotions for so long that he didn't know what to do with them when they escaped their prison.  He didn't play Angelo as a villain--he played him as a tragic hero, which is (formally, anyway) what he is.  And I was almost sorry (as I am when I read the play) that he wasn't allowed to die at the end, the victim of his own humanity and hubris, like Tamburlaine.  But Shakespeare makes him live with himself and the consequences of his human weakness (not hypocrisy--the Duke is hypocritical when he plays bawd to Mariana, but Angelo knows exactly what he's doing).  Gotta feel sorry for Mariana, though.

Clearly, I could witter on about this play for screens and screens.  I will content myself, however, with saying that this production is intelligent and thoughtful, that the director Arin Arbus has really thought about its patterns and psychologies, and it really moves along.  The clowns were genuinely funny--I was particularly fond of John Keating as a wild-haired and very Irish Pompey.  And everybody's going to get more comfortable with both staging and lines as the run goes on.  It's not perfect--Measure for Measure is a problem play, after all--but it's damn good for all that.