Reviewed by Gregor Collins
As an armchair Shakespearean, I find many productions predictably esoteric, made heavier by actors taking themselves too seriously getting bogged down on the aesthetics of the line instead of the emotion behind it. A worthy antidote is The Seeing Place’s rendition of The Bard’s Measure for Measure—though an intermittently choppy journey, a final destination whose modernized performances and dauntless direction seamlessly transmute 1603 into 2019.
I approach every play I see with an impartial mind, but I can’t help sitting there waiting for a show to begin, feeling how the set sits in silence, or how dusty the smell of creativity is. Which is why I enjoy the Seeing Place: There’s that dusty smell of creativity. And whether I end up liking the show or not, I know I’ll be party to something bold; something that paints outside the lines. With 75% of the shows I see ostensibly satisfied staying within the lines, I highly recommend looking more deeply into The Seeing Place and what two of the hardest working theater-makers in New York, Artistic Directors Erin Cronican and Brandon Walker, are all about.
Measure for Measure involves a young novice nun who is compromised by a corrupt official who offers to save her brother from execution in return for sex. It worked for the Weinstein Company, which is why, according to Cronican, M4M is more relevant than ever:
“Shakespeare wrote Measure for Measure in the early 1600s, yet it remains astonishingly resonant today,” says Cronican, who also acts in and directs about half the shows at Seeing Place. “It sheds light on the abuses of power over women who can’t have their voices heard.”
As the play begins, the duke of Vienna puts his deputy Angelo in charge of the state. Angelo immediately enforces a law outlawing sex outside of marriage and sentences Claudio to death for sleeping with Juliet, Claudio’s fiancée. Claudio’s sister Isabella, a novice nun, appeals to Angelo to save her brother. But the supposedly pure Angelo demands that Isabella sleep with him to save Claudio. Isabella vehemently refuses. The Duke, who has remained in Vienna disguised as a friar, suggests to Claudio that Angelo’s jilted fiancée, Mariana, could take Isabella’s place—he proposes a win-win-win plan: Isabella wouldn’t have to have sex and therefore be guilt-free, Mariana would have the sex and do a good deed, and Claudio would get to have sex as a free man.
What happened, you ask? You have exactly seven more days to find out. Chop-chop.
Director Brandon Walker had fun with the set and the blocking, at impromptu moments breaking the fourth wall by doing things like pulling out his smart phone to snap photos of the onstage action, or by suddenly deciding to hammer home an impassioned point directly into the eyes of a random audience member. It all worked to give the show a more modern salience, and keep our eyes glued to the unfolding drama. Lighting Designer Eve Bandi should also be commended for aptly keeping up with Walker’s frenzied footing.
Rarely do I see a show where there’s not one weak actor: Rusty Flounders and Candice Oden bring a filmic realism to Lucio and Mariana; Robin Friend’s “American” Claudio eases into Pompey’s Eastern-European accent as smoothly as the sun slipping under the skyline; William Ketter, a newcomer on the New York acting scene, is slight in frame and genial in face, yet as Angelo delivers the demonstrative performance of an actor twice his size; with the face of an angel, Sabrina Schlegel-Mejia waxes convincing grittiness of a woman scorned; and brown-robe-clad Brandon Walker floats around the wings like Yoda in his UPS uniform, sprinkling quirky frivolity wherever most needed.
And in my favorite performance of the evening, Jared Mason Murray, who won the right to have his own paragraph, gives a scenes-stealing turn as Escalus, exhibiting every ounce of the jocularity and charisma of a lawyer on a David E. Kelley series. I wouldn’t be surprised if by the time Trump gets reelected he’ll be a series regular on Bull.
MEASURE FOR MEASURE plays March 28-April 14, 2019 GENERAL ADMISSION – $20 (Premium tickets $30) http://www.TheSeeingPlace.com The Seeing Place @ the Paradise Factory 64 East 4th Street, NYC