On the upside, Measure for Measure will never be a "problem play" again: thanks to Doug Silver's cuts and Andrew Frank's circus-like modernization, this Shakespeare adaptation is very clearly a comedy. However, the constant mugging for attention, from both the characters on-stage and the actors watching (like cheerleaders) from the sidelines makes too many of the jokes flat, and the slimming changes to the text have made too many of the characters less than one-dimensional. Ato Essandoh stands out as the lecherous Angelo; he does so by being the only one who takes the show seriously enough to earn our laughter.
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
With Measure For Measure: Provide Your Own Block and Axe, adapter Doug Silver and director Andrew Frank hope to recapture the momentum they created with last season's theatrical abridgment of Macbeth: A Walking Shadow. Andrew Frank is a keen Shakespearean director, and he works well with his actors to get the nuances out of the script, even if this requires some exaggerated gestures or punch-lined pauses to make sure the audience is on the same page. But Silver's extensive cuts (the play runs roughly seventy minutes) undermine the text by whirling characters in and out, with little explanation of motive or plot, and Frank's solid instincts are overwhelmed by random choices in the staging. The end result is awkward and underwhelming: no matter how you measure it, the only real draw to the show is Ato Essandoh, who brings the same intensity to Angelo's comic lechery as he did to Macbeth's serious tragedy.
The advantage of this collaboration is that it clarifies Measure for Measure, one of the genre-defying "problem plays," as an easily accessible comedy. The bawdy jokes are sharp, albeit excessive, and all hints of morality and scruples of subplots have been washed away. At the same time, what's left over isn't very focussed either: Silver's cuts trivialize the actions of characters like Pompey, Elbow, and Lucio and Frank's over-the-top direction gropes blindly for laughs, which at times minimizes the effect of Shakespeare's wit. The play is also wildly uneven: everything that's not directly related to the main narrative has an excess of ham, from the effeminate, Steve Carell-like actions of the Duke (Lex Woutas) to the softly drunk buffoonery of Provost (John-Andrew Morrison). There's a time and a place for such antics--Mistress Overdone's sex scene is anything but overdone by a wonderfully unabashed Fiona Jones--but the pacing of the comedy has been ruined by the constant begging of laughs.
Additionally, Measure for Measure has also been stuffed with needless parlor tricks. After all the trouble of cutting the script and focusing our attention, it makes little sense to have the actors drop their roles as they watch and laugh the show from the wings, and even less to then have on-stage actors refer to their chortling companions as their characters. And why start the play in a lounge, or set the play in modern times, if that device isn't used as a springboard for some greater understanding of Shakespeare?
Macbeth: A Walking Shadow was an excellent production that enhanced our view of a haunted hero, and it succeeded by being specific with both character and atmosphere. Measure For Measure: Provide Your Own Block and Axe seems like a rushed follow-up, or a chance for Ato Essandoh to dominate another Shakespearian role, for it evokes only the atmosphere of a circus, a show in which almost everyone is just clowning around.
Manhattan Theater Source (177 MacDougal Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $18.00
Performances (through 8/25): Fri. @ 8 | Sat. @ 7 & 9:30
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