Long Wharf’s ‘Measure for Measure’ Leaves ’em Laughing

Review at Hartford Courant

Review at Hartford Courant

Review at Hartford Courant

 

Hartford CourantIt’s rare enough that the Long Wharf Theatre would do a Shakespeare play — in the theater’s 51-year history, it has staged only 11 of them.

It’s rarer still that the Long Wharf would give over its main stage to an existing production by an outside company, something it hasn’t done in at least seven years.

What makes the Fiasco Theatre’s reshaping of “Measure for Measure” so right for the Long Wharf right now?

Topicality, for one thing. “Measure for Measure” abounds with abuses of power, rampant corruption and outrageous lies. The script, which dates back to 1603 or so, is ideal for the run-up to a presidential election. The liner notes in the Long Wharf program list a half dozen real-life present-day politicians who measure up to the scoundrels that populate the play.

You can sense how this crisp, fast-paced production appealed to Long Wharf artistic director Gordon Edelstein, who saw the Fiasco troupe in New York and invited them to Connecticut. In its quest to be clear, comfortable, entertaining and actually about something, this “Measure for Measure” compares favorably with Edelstein’s own attempts to modernize or reimagine “Uncle Vanya,” “A Doll’s House” and “Our Town.”

The big difference is that “Measure for Measure” wants to be funny all the time.

You’d think that scaling Shakespeare’s rambling drama down to a six-person cast, minimal sets and clear, snappy dialogue would be the biggest challenge Fiasco has set for itself here. But Fiasco’s real leap is in pretending that the play is a comedy through and through, rather than the herky-jerky mix of mirth, tragedy and melodrama that most directors accept it as.

It’s not that the Fiasco company (whose very name broadcasts its willingness to take big risks) is going for dishonest laughs here, or willfully misdirecting and twisting Shakespeare’s words. This is a tightly wound troupe of actors/singers/clowns admirably attempting to find some consistency, an evenness of tone, that this wide-ranging tale of skulduggery, social upheaval and love torn asunder isn’t expected to support.

And damned if they don’t succeed. In Fiasco’s “Measure for Measure,” 20 characters (not to mention a horde of pesky “lords and attendants”) are reduced to an essential 11 plus a few fleeting minor parts. It’s seldom a good idea to have actors play multiple roles in a play where more than one character dons a disguise and tries to pass as someone else. But Fiasco has edited the scenes down to the point where there’s no clutter, no confusion, nothing extraneous. Most of the time, only two characters are bantering, in a manner that makes the Shakespearean text sound like a gritty, witty David Mamet play.

Andy Grotelueschen, who plays the central role of Vincentio (known in this version simply as “Duke”), has worked with physical comedy guru Christopher Bayes (including in the 2010 Yale Rep production of “Servant of Two Masters”), but restrains himself here, to good effect.

The Duke can be an unforgivingly bleak role; the character ventures out into the city he rules, disguised as a friar, and is met by one immoral or unscrupulous citizen after another. Grotelueschen plays the Duke as upstanding and no-nonsense, spitting out his lines with an earnest briskness. He’s not a brooding loner — instead, he serves as the straight man for such comical scoundrels as the untrustworthy judge Angelo (Paul L. Coffey, whose twinkling eyes and warm smile make him seem all the more evil) and, in a comic tour de force of hypersmarminess and outrageous overreactions, Ben Steinfeld as the sleazy nobleman Lucio. Some much-needed femininity and sensitivity is provided by Jessie Austrian as Angelo’s trusting fiancee, Mariana, and Emily Young as both the innocent nun Isabella and the saucy brothelkeeper Mistress Overdone. The show is kept at such a light and frothy level that its accustomed comic relief, Pompey the pimp (the handsome, cheery Noah Brody), doesn’t have to strain himself to keep the laughs flowing.

There’s an effortless feel to the whole endeavor that is all the more remarkable because “Measure for Measure” is such a hard show to pull off. I remember an American Repertory Theatre production in the early ’80s that tried to solve the play’s troublesome fifth act with a long chase scene, and a Royal Shakespeare Company production in the late ’90s that turned Pompey into a Boy George impersonator.

By keeping its merriment steady and balanced, Fiasco Theater doesn’t have to resort to absurd exaggerations and unbridled chaos. In the way it structures the play around processions and elaborate entrances (Derek McLane’s superb, understated scenic design consists of six distinct door frames), as well as singing, clowning, pageantry and romance, this “Measure for Measure” behaves less like a conventional Shakespeare play and more like one of those fanciful, funny Elizabethan masques penned by the bard’s old pal Ben Jonson.

There’s a case to be made that the play’s darker elements have been unnecessarily brightened here, but by any other measure, this “Measure for Measure” is a great pleasure.

THE FIASCO THEATER PRODUCTION OF “MEASURE FOR MEASURE,”directed by company members Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, plays through Dec. 20 at the Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven. Performances are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25-$80. The running time is two hours, including an intermission. Information: 203-787-4282, longwharf.org

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