Arin Arbus seemed delivered in full bloom from nowhere last year to direct an astounding Othello for Theatre for New Audience. Now the obviously undaunted director has come back to the group with a modern-day production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure that is as intelligent as her previous outing, beautifully-designed (by Peter Ksander), and containing heaps of passion. Still, Arbus’ worthwhile efforts don’t render the play less problematic and strangely stiff-necked for 2010 audiences than it usually is.
In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare sets up a complex central dilemma: Claudio (LeRoy McClain) is condemned to death but offered freedom if his novitiate-nun sister Isabella (Elisabeth Waterston) agrees to forfeit her virginity to the stern Angelo (Rocco Sisto), who has taken over for the good Duke Vincentio (Jefferson Mays) while the latter goes off to play benevolent friar for a while.
But no matter how well the sort-of tragedy is treated, those of us witnessing the action in a different moral-code world have difficulty siding with the pure Isabella when she terms her brother “dishonest wretch” after he details the potential horrors of bathing “in fiery floods” merely because he and his pregnant intended ran into a snag in their marriage papers.
The reason to see Arbus’ tussle with Measure for Measure is that she treats the play as well as changing manners and mores allow. Costume designer David Zinn has put the ensemble in mostly black-gray-and-white contemporary dress to underscore the less than black-and-white ethics revealed.
Moreover, the cast responds with persuasion. Whether in trim suit or friar’s hooded garb, Mays exudes informed goodness in dulcet tones. As written, the Duke is one of the few wise men the playwright ever sets up to practice an unmissable New Testament regimen of forgiveness. Waterston, a long drink of cool water with expressive supplicating arms, speaks the lines in liquid poeticism, except when Isabella loses her temper with Claudio, whom McClain makes a portrait of manly vulnerability. Sisto’s Angelo walks as if his outfit has been overly starched. His depiction of confused righteousness is quite moving, as is Alyssa Bresnahan’s Mariana, whom Angelo has been wrongly ignoring.
In contrast to the troubled main story, there is the randy surrounding world peopled by figures with whom Shakespeare has a barrel of fun. The main participants are the clown Pompey (played by John Keating under an untamed white Afro) and the goofy constable Elbow (John Christopher Jones, amusing as usual). Also getting laughs is Alfredo Narciso as the sharp-tongued, lying and manipulative Lucio. Adding occasional ringing notes are Mary Testa as Mistress Overdone and Robert Langdon Lloyd as the Duke’s reliable aide, Escalus. Special mention must also be made of Graham Winton, who plays the industrious Provost with his standard broad-shouldered aplomb.