Muddled Shakespeare dramedy strains to measure up
By Carolyn Hayes
Detroit’s Elizabeth Theater Company, reaffirming its dedication to Shakespeare, now returns to the Bard for the second time with “Measure for Measure.” In most respects, the production revisits the precedents set by the company’s initial 2011 production of “The Tempest,” including many of the same actors and creative staff and ringleader Jerry Belanger, director/performer/designer of many hats. Here, however, the rockier source material proves less forgiving in the execution. Technically grouped with Shakespeare’s comedies, “Measure” boasts irony aplenty in its topsy-turvy morality, where “good” and “lawful” are rarely one and the same. Yet its warring tones of life-and-death melodrama and laugh-a-minute tomfoolery find this wayward production mired in a messy middle ground.
The play’s opening scene finds Vienna’s rightful duke, Vincentio (James Nanys), hightailing out of town on unspecified business, naming the straight-and-narrow Angelo (Brian Thibault) to rule in his stead as deputy. Angelo, in turn, proves such a stickler for the letter of the law that he seizes on a rarely enforced statute against fornication and condemns one common-law husband, despite the man being by all accounts a loving partner and model citizen. The prisoner’s sister, pious Isabella (Sarah Switanowski), leaves her convent in order to make the case for her brother’s life. Matters are further complicated when Angelo becomes obsessed with the ardent novice and offers Isabella a hypocritically carnal deal to absolve the first carnal transgression – essentially, to save one innocent life at the price of another’s pure soul. Meanwhile, Vincentio dons a disguise and moves among his people, using his courtly wisdom to surreptitiously set things right. Surrounding and intercutting the main story are a passel of supporting characters: whores and drunks, lawmen and executioners, clowns and sages, as befits the thrust of each scene.
The production’s baroque design concept has a determinedly Elizabethan feel, with a rickety carousel of resourceful backdrops (by set designers Belanger and Michael Rollo) that are lent a storybook quality by largely ad-hoc details and properties (Belanger, Sarah Lucas, and Kristin Stelter). Rollo’s lighting and sound design have standout moments, and most lush and pleasing of all are Belanger’s multihued costumes, practically a pageant of variety in cuts and fabrics.
In keeping with its comic foundation, some of the production’s greatest achievements are found in the humorous material. As second in command to the office of the duke, Mike McGettigan wields an air simultaneously wise and droll, gently winking at the preposterousness of some proceedings. At the bawdier end of the spectrum, Pat Loos plays brightly broad as a plucky Shakespearean clown, and Ted Neda is similarly larger than life as a sparkling buffoon of a constable. As for the fool above his station, Matios Simonian is a guilty pleasure to watch while exquisitely setting himself up for his own satisfying downfall.
Despite the influx of material and character arcs, one of the show’s major strengths is its ability to convey the zig-zagging plots and people with clarity, not confusion. This allows the serious story’s larger themes of the absurd chasm between lawfulness and virtue to come to the fore, and also makes way for a handful of frankly stirring performances. Notable examples include Thibault’s humbling (and witheringly corrupted) realization of love, Switanowski’s reeling reaction to a repugnant moral dilemma, and jailer Patrick Hanley’s patient, persuasive voice of reason.
Yet just as the lewd humor is bizarrely balanced by resoundingly grave consequences, the production matches its highs with lows – stalled-out dips and blunders that stem from inattentive direction. Although the show proves capable of unimpeachable choices, it’s just as likely that any given scene will be marked by skittering tones, middle-of-the-road choices, or no choice at all. There is excellent material here, but it doesn’t span the whole of this three-hour production; moreover, the Elizabeth Theater’s lax timetable (de rigueur for a bar/theater hybrid with a hospitable atmosphere) is given to late starts and elongated intermissions that here serve to swell already-bloated proceedings.
With its noncommittal fluctuations between the incongruous extremes of a seriocomic kitchen sink, this “Measure for Measure” could fit the bill for viewers convinced that mistaken-identity pranks and a touch of slapstick were just what “Dead Man Walking” was missing. Bright spots of both humor and pathos pepper what is clearly a competent effort by a skilled group, but the Bard’s clamor of multitudinous facets cause the production to stumble for want of a cohesive point of view.