Elevator Repair Service's Immeasurable "Measure for Measure" Damage

Something Elevator Repair Service artistic director John Collins states in his program note for the Measure for Measure he’s directed (as the latest in the company’s Public Theater appearances) gives the clue to the infuriating—though some might actually deem entertaining—production.

Writing about having his celebrated troupe finally approach a William Shakespeare play, he refers to the Bard’s “positively unnatural form of speech.”

Really? It is?

Shakespeare’s poetry and prose may often be heightened, but a great percentage of the speeches—whether in iambic pentameter or not—sound exactly like speech as it’s spoken today and not just as uttered when the Elizabethans were attending performances. But Collins has his convictions, and he carries them out by approaching Shakespeare’s language as if he’s decided it’s all but laughable.

Not that he’s going to abridge it. That’s not standard ERS practice. In line with his treatment of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (the first section, that is) and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, he’s going to honor the entire script (whatever folio version he settles on).

He won’t redline a single word. At least that’s what he seems no to be doing when he sets his troupe loose on Shakespeare as if they’re ravenous dogs released to devour a single bone. The way he and they quite frequently treat the dialogue is by reciting it a breakneck pace. They speak the speeches so rapidly, so ultra-trippingly on the tongue, that while each actor might think he or she is enunciating every syllable, what’s heard is often unintelligible.

To be sure, there are times when they slow down so that the basic Measure for Measure story line comes through. That’s the one in which Isabella (Rinne Groff), her heart set on becoming a nun, is informed by stand-in Vienna Duke Angelo (Pete Simpson) that if she sleeps with him, thereby sacrificing her chastity, he’ll commute the death sentence her brother Claudio (Greig Sargeant) is under for having fornicated.

The situation, helpfully unknotted by the supposedly absent Duke (Scott Shepherd), who’s actually hanging around disguised as a friar, is the usual explanation for the late Shakespeare opus being considered a “problem play.”

But rather than ease the problem, Collins compounds it with notions that have the unpleasant effect of suggesting that he and his cronies have concluded Measure for Measure simply isn’t so much a problem play as a bad one, an opus just sitting there, lox-like, begging to be trivialized, itching to be spoofed.

So the ERSers tear through it hell-for-leather or occasionally slow down for flat-as-pancakes line readings as they amble about in Kaye Voyce’s ‘30s-‘40s outfits. For instance, Isabella is garbed as if going to a late afternoon tea, while Elbow appears in a fake white stomach wraparound pushing down short shorts.

As the actors cavort, they send up the characters they’re asked to play as often as—or more often than—they present them straightforwardly. Laughs abound, but while there are comedic elements in the problem play, these aren’t the ones Shakespeare expected to elicit. (In the Mark Rylance’s Globe Theatre production, he knew how to get the titters and guffaws from the Duke/Friar’s comments.)

When this M4M audience enters, they see a stage set out not unlike Collins’s set-up for The Sound and the Fury. Long tables, thanks to designer Jim Findlay, fill the center of the stage. Placed on them before wooden chairs are enough classic candlestick telephones to accommodate the entire cast.

It’s an intriguing look that begins to pay off as soon as the action begins and the players are phoning each other to spout the opening lines. But Collins tires of that after a short, cacophonous siege during which the ensemble members ferociously overlap one another at delivering what Collins apparently has judged extraneous act-one text.

Once that’s over, the phones are abandoned, leaving the actors having mostly to work around the space-occupying tables. The long-necked props are only briefly returned to much later and after Collins has all cast members (the others being Suzie Sokol, Lindsay Hockaday, Maggie Hoffman, Mike Iveson, Vin Knight, April Matthis, Gavin Price) hurl themselves into what increasingly turns into an off-putting travesty. In the process, each of thesps is only intermittently allowed to look like more than adequate participants in a third-rate SNL skit.

It’s as if, concentrating on Shakespeare for the first time in his directing career, director Collins reckoned that the vaunted canon—or at least this entry—isn’t much good. As a result, he figured that having his insouciant way with Measure for Measure would allow him to call attention to Shakespeare’s sorry deficiencies

At times, Collins also suggests that he’s even mocking directors who treat Shakespeare with respect they’ve never questioned. It’s not that he’s merely taking a new tack, as is commonplace nowadays for directors aiming to put their stamp on overly familiar works. It’s that he’s thumbing his nose at anyone pretentious enough to bow low in Shakespeare’s direction. All this at the Public, which Joseph Papp founded to pay everlasting homage to Shakespeare.

Another thing about the plays’ familiarity to Shakespeare lovers: I’m going to bet that spectators getting a kick out of Collins’s rude poke—plenty such patrons surrounded me—knew the play well and maybe even didn’t much like it.

Perhaps they were pleased at Collins and crew having fun at Shakespeare’s expense, but what about prospective ticket buyers who’ve never seen the play before? What are they to make of it? Will they even understand what’s going on? In an age where dumbing down is rife, that’s not—or shouldn’t be—the Public Theater mission, no matter what the company’s commitment is to Elevator Repair Service.

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