Sometimes less can be more and that proves to be the case in the Fiasco Theatre’s production of William Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” that opened on Wednesday evening, December 2 at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven for a run concluding on December
But don’t think you’re going to be shortchanged from an exciting night of theater. That’s hardly ever the case when Fiasco is involved. Formed by a group of graduates from the Brown University/Trinity Rep MFA program in Providence, RI, once they moved to New York, the troupe has earned outstanding reviews and an enviable reputation for their innovative, fast-paced and sleek approaches to the Bard’s classics, starting in 2009 with their award-winning production of “Cymbeline” through their take on “Two Gentleman of Verona,” which in this reviewer’s eyes when caught at Brooklyn’s Theater for a New Audience, proved to be engaging, ebullient and revelatory.
Fiasco productions are noted for the small size of their casts, often between seven and nine people, with actors doubling and even tripling on roles while simultaneously creating completely individualized characters. Their sets tend toward the minimal, which accommodates freedom of movement which is an essential components of Fiasco’s works, but frequently extremely colorful and eye-catching. Their costuming is clever in that the outfits clearly set the production in a specific place and time, while easily accommodating the quick changes necessary to allow the actor to take on a different role.
Occasionally Fiasco will “bulk up” its cast, as they did for their recent New York run of the musical, “Into the Woods,” in which they filled the stage with a staggering 11 people, which worked beautifully. As music plays an important role in the group’s interpretations, a number of those 11 performers also provided the show’s musical accompaniment.
“Measure for Measure” fits nicely into Fiasco’s oeuvre, as it is, like “Cymbeline” and “Verona,” one of Shakespeare’s less frequently performed plays and somewhat of a problem play, in that most of its main characters, two of whom we are expected to extend sympathy, act quite badly, particularly towards women. The plot includes a Duke who for unclear reasons abandons his city, Vienna, during a difficult economic period and wanders its streets disguised as a priest, while the deputy he has appointed to act in his place, proves to be a ruthless hypocrite who enacts restrictive policies and rules harshly. There’s also a handsome young man facing perhaps an unwarranted death sentence who would willingly sacrifice his pious sister’s honor for his own salvation. In its own reduced and focused way, Fiasco is able to enlighten its audiences regarding the characters’ motivations and, because of their accelerated pacing, leave the audience with little room to ponder someone’s behavior but instead just go with the flow.
This winning and insightful production of “Measure for Measure” has been devised and directed by two members of Fiasco, Noah Brody, co-artistic director of Fiasco, and Ben Steinfeld, who also play several roles. They have slimmed down Shakespeare’s original to eleven characters played by six actors, who to a person give exquisite and effective performances. Andy Grotelueschen plays the Duke of Vienna and he is the only performer to play only one role, although he believably disguises himself as a priest for most of the play simply by hoisting an oversized hood over his head and slightly altering his voice and cadence. Really, my only quibble with the entire production involves his performance. He does not stand out very regally as the Duke, in fact he seems somewhat nondescript, particularly as he seems quite anxious to ditch his responsibilities, so much so that unless you’re familiar with the play, it takes a few key moments to realize that when the priest first appears that he’s really the Duke in disguise. Somehow this transition could be telegraphed just a bit clearer to the viewer.
The first act is by necessity filled with a great deal of exposition, some of it quite dark, in order to set up the much more rewarding second act, which Fiasco manages to mine for some welcome humor and, at times, hilarity. We meet the Duke’s two deputies, Angelo, played with a stern judgmental countenance and underlying ambition by Paul L. Coffey, and the more level-headed Escalus played by Jessie Austrian with a warm, helpless intelligence confounded by Angelo’s misguided ruthlessness.
Emily Young plays the postulant Isabella with a determination that follows her growth from a naïve young woman into a strong, confident woman who learns to maneuver through the cynical untrustworthy world of the men in power. Young endows Isabella with a quiet dignity as she faces her brother Claudio’s imprisonment for impregnating a young woman and then attempts to convince Angelo of his good character. Of course, Angelo’s promise to intervene comes with a heavy price that this pious young woman is not willing to pay. Brody offers a Claudio who earns the audience’s sympathy as he struggles to accept his impending death so that his shocking response to his sister in the second act feels like a betrayal to our trust.
Steinfeld excels as Lucio, a boastful, fawning gossip of frequently changing loyalties, who has a marvelous scene in the second act when the Duke confronts him about the insults he made about the Duke when in the presence of Duke’s priestly alter-ego. Steinfeld moves back and forth across the stage, muttering excuses and platitudes, and later as he attempts to be an acolyte to the Duke, is consistently rebuffed.
It wouldn’t be Shakespeare without the mandatory bawd, and Young, doubling as Mistress Overdone gives a convincing portrait of a businesswoman deterred by Angelo’s proclamations of morality. Brody doubles as her associate Pompey, while Coffey also plays Elbow, a rather dim constable determined to arrest Pompey for his transgressions, as the unfaithful Lucio helps, as we say today, throw Pompey under the bus. Austrian also assays with stately femininity the role of Mariana, the heartbroken jilted fiancé of Angelo, who ended their engagement after her dowry was lost at sea.
Derek McLane’s set finds the back of Long Wharf’s thrust stage lined with a row of doors of varying sizes and colors, representing entrances and exits to the various locations in the play, with some able to be moved center stage to serve as a door to a prison cell, to a jail, or to Angelo’s boudoir where he will be tricked into an assignation with a veiled woman. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting helps create the appropriate atmosphere to differentiate the somber from the more light-hearted scenes, while Whitney Locher’s costumes help set the time in an early Renaissance period as the forces of strict morality were fighting with a newly enlightened governing class that did not see things in such black and white terms.
Despite the work’s convoluted plotting, directors Brody and Steinfeld keep the evening highly entertaining, particularly the rewarding second act, where they not only emphasize the humor, but suspensefully play out the Duke’s ultimate machinations, which initially on the surface seem to be just as treacherous as his Deputy’s, and unnecessarily hurtful to Isabella who must endure her worst thoughts about her brother’s fate. The two directors have also found an honest and witty way to address the awkward moments at the end of the play when an unexpected betrothal is announced. They have, more than in other productions of this play that I have seen, hinted at an attraction during the play on one character’s part, but they resolve the question in a way that does not contradict the empowering journey another character has been on.
“Measure to Measure” surely proves that Fiasco can handle some of Shakespeare’s more troubling plays and demonstrates that the slimmed down approach to the Bard as practiced by up and coming New York troupes such as Fiasco and Bedlam are gaining in popularity and creativity, without sacrificing the essence of Shakespeare.
“Measure for Measure” plays through December 20 at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven. For tickets and information, contact the Long Wharf Box Office at 203.787.4282 or 800.782.8497, or visit the theater’s website at www.longwharf.org.