According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Measure for Measure

Would you sacrifice your virginity to a smarmy dignitary if it meant freeing your brother from execution? Set in Vienna at a time of judicial reckoning, Shakespeare’s comedy Measure for Measure is a delicious mixture of sex, religion, and politics. When set in a garden and produced by The New York Neo Classical Ensemble, such a twisted premise gets a delightful new slant, giving way to clever staging and keen physical comedy.

Ariana Venturi and Richard Douglass / Photograph by Jim Bridges

Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis

Lately, Duke Vincentio (Brandon Uranowitz) has been dodging his regal responsibilities, traipsing about town disguised as a friar. In his absence, ironfisted Lord Angelo (Richard Douglass) steps up to power, taking matters into his own hands. That’s not a good thing for Claudio (Tommy Heleringer), who has gotten Juliet (Danielle Levanas) pregnant out of wedlock. Claudio’s sister, nun-in-training Isabella (Ariana Venturi), pleads with Angelo for mercy, inadvertently seducing him in the process. As it turns out, he has it in his heart to retract his decree, but only in conjunction with his lust for Isabella. Dire ultimatums such as these are the name of the game, or at least the play – Measure for Measure. This becomes a delightful puzzle to solve, perfectly matched for by the cast’s infectiously energetic performance. In addition, this revival gives the play a bawdy, oversexed makeover. These actors don’t waste any opportunity for shock factor or big laughs, nor do they shy away from physical comedy. The result? All the dirty jokes are that much easier to understand; they’re digestible but by no means dumbed down. The choice to perform in an outdoor venue also revitalizes the piece; the garden setting of weeping willow trees and ivy-covered chain-link fences adds a soft romance to a play otherwise rooted in debauchery. Directed by Stephen Stout, this production of Measure for Measure takes risks without detracting from central themes. Isabella remains a character of chaste perseverance, for example, and despite all intentions to not get involved, Vincentio can’t help but meddle.

Clad in a hooded robe for most of the play, Uranowitz counteracts the seriousness of his appearance with the flightiness of a fugitive. His paranoia starts to fade into a sage confidence as people buy his religious status, and Vincentio takes on a gleefully patronizing confidence. The stunning Uranowitz also brings to light the underlying implications of his dialogue: his Vincentio clearly—outrageously—likes men. Even this small an exaggeration manages to give the piece a modern spin, playing up the sexuality both visually and verbally in a way that older productions may not have. While the audience can’t help but grin at being let in on such all of these gleeful ruses, Isabella’s fateful answer to Angelo must still be derived, and it’s the driving force of the rest of the play.

As Isabella, Venturi evokes gut-wrenching sympathy from the audience. She’s shy and strong at the same time, and her quivering, stuttering performance truly transforms her into a young, terrified virgin whose convictions have been threatened. Her aversion is all the more easy to believe given the physical brutality of Douglass’s performance. When Angelo first propositions Isabella, for example, he hurriedly unzips his pants to make his intentions known in no uncertain terms. Before he dismisses her to think about his request, he pulls her towards her in a forceful embrace. Their obvious tension—his repugnance, her resistance—is easy to see and uncomfortable to watch. Their contrasting characters make it hard to choose sides or even consider what one would do in Isabella’s position. No one is safe from Angelo’s arbitrary laws in this play, however. The supporting cast all have their own troubles to deal with, as well, but they do so in a way that brings in much-needed jest, keeping the pacing light and the plot unpredictable.

Breaking up tension with unbeatable slapstick chemistry are the bumbling and dim-witted constable Elbow (the hilarious Bill Griffin) and the carefree pimp Pompey (Teddy Alvaro). Elbow has been looking for someone to lock up in order to Angelo in the hopes of a promotion when he comes across Pompey, whose blissfully uncomplicated lifestyle and boyish outlook charm the audience from the get-go. Another ludicrous member of Vienna’s society is Lucio (Cale Krise). Serving as comic relief, Lucio often speaks out of turn, trying to answer questions not asked of him, and Krise’s know-it-all performance makes him the largest yet most lovable fool of all. He fights then runs away, he bellows then steps back, and he breaks the fourth wall in ways that the audience can’t help but be engaged.

Stout has made sure to involve the audience by staging the actors’ blocking, entrances, and exits amidst the outdoor seating. In addition, he directs any rhetorical question found in the script back to the audience, no matter how absurd or irrelevant. Another testament to Stephen Stout’s directing is the disciplined focus despite a myriad of circumstantial variables such as fading sunlight, a nearby bus stop, and pedestrians on cell phones. Measure for Measure sometimes goes overboard – for instance, a gratuitous karaoke scene featuring Danielle Lavaras and Traci Thomas’ muddled half-hipster (corduroy blazers, ties, and loafers) and half-classical (hoods, habits, and threadbare vests) costumes. Overall, however, Measure for Measure is a strong, well-thought-out production. You may not have an answer for the question posed at the beginning of this review, but you’ll enjoy Shakespeare’s opinion on the subject, and the New York Neo Classical Ensemble rousing take on civil injustice and personal imperfection.

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