Off-Broadway Review: “Measure for Measure” at the Public’s LuEsther Theater

Off-Broadway Review: “Measure for Measure” at the Public’s LuEsther Theater (Closed Sunday November 12, 2017)
Written by William Shakespeare
Created by Elevator Repair Service
Directed by John Collins
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

“Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” – Luke 6:38

William Shakespeare’s plays have been abridged, modernized, and retold in every conceivable fashion. As the time for curtain approaches for “Measure for Measure,” currently running at the Public’s LuEsther Theater, the dramatis personae gather around the tables and chairs carefully placed on Jim Findlay’s sparse set and the audience begins to wonder what kind of retelling this Elevator Repair Service (ERS) creation will be. When the Duke (Scott Shepherd) communicates with Escalus (Vin Knight) using an early 1900s candlestick phone then reaches across the table to hand him a paper, the audience shifts from a sense of ‘wonder’ to a healthy grappling with ‘why.’

For two hours and ten minutes (without intermission), the cast of ERS’s “Measure for Measure” shares in the audience’s grappling by performing the iconic “comedy” through a deconstructionist lens. The play is less “the thing” here than the thing it is not. The ERS strips the play to its bare bones, not by abridgement, but by sorting through what they consider to be the essence of the bard’s comedic masterpiece, an essence that transcends the text itself and longs for reconstruction. Therefore, the members of the cast deliver their lines (often reading them from a “teleprompter”) is a variety of styles – from the familiar iambic petameter to the barely discernable.

Medium is the message here (Marshall McLuhan) and that message is pure Shakespeare and pure and unrefined “Measure for Measure.” Under John Collins’s inventive and meticulous direction, the play “gathers to a greatness like the ooze of oil crushed” (Gerard Manly Hopkins) to a grandeur that defines itself for a new era of theatre-goers. Perhaps gone is the timeless need to honor iambic pentameter or Shakespeare himself and competing for attention is the message itself and the compelling query as to whether or not it remains relevant beyond its cultural entrenchment.

ERS’s “Measure for Measure” is itself an exercise in rhythm. The rhythm is not just inherent in the lines of the text and that rhythm vibrates with moral ambiguity and metacognition. Rich and enduring questions challenge Angelo (Pete Simpson), Lucio (Mike Iveson), Claudio (Greg Sargeant), and Isabella (Rinne Groff). Does imprisonment result in any benefit to the imprisoned or to society? ERA’s “Measure for Measure” successfully questions the nature and purpose of law and order and the role of the state in maintaining moral clarity. Does one receive “justice for justice?” The same enduring and rich questions challenge the members of the audience who seem to yearn for the familiarity of Shakespeare’s rhymes while remaining open to the vicissitudes of humankind across time and how those are presented on the stage.

Shakespeare’s words scroll across the set in ERS’s “Measure for Measure” and demand to be reckoned with in new and sometimes uncomfortable ways.