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Civic Damnation, or Farce?

"...This Measure for Measure, Elevator Repair Service’s first foray into Shakespeare, also deals with the messy intersection of law and sexuality—the play’s plot kicks off when the Duke, worried he lacks the credibility to start enforcing Vienna’s strict anti-fornication laws, pretends to leave his city and puts his puritanical deputy Angelo in charge. In this production, however, Elevator Repair Service’s madcap experimentation robs the text of much of its weight. The result is a raucous riff on Measure for Measure that shortchanges the play’s story and themes by leaving us with the distinct impression the whole thing is a lame practical joke played by the Duke on the other characters.

The vice and ugliness that earn Measure for Measure its reputation as a “problem play” are all still here, but mostly played for laughs. Angelo (Pete Simpson) condemns Claudio (Greig Sargeant) to death as a punishment for premarital sex. When Claudio’s sister, the soon-to-be nun Isabella (Rinne Groff) pleads for his life, Angelo’s lust is awoken, and he offers Isabella an obscene bargain: her chastity for her brother’s life. Here, Angelo is all slapstick pratfalls, flinging recalcitrant pens and phones around everywhere he goes. Even as he attempts to extort sex from Isabella, Simpson goes for broke on comic physicality. He’s a Tex Avery cartoon wolf given ungainly life.

The tragedy of this Vienna is that everyone treats the story as a farce. Only Isabella and Claudio know the stakes of the situation are life-and-death, damnation-and-salvation. Shakespeare wrote some of the officers of the law and denizens of the underworld as clowns—Elevator Repair Service has Angelo and the Duke clown around too, even incorporating severed heads and dead bodies into grim sight gags. But the seriousness comes through in the production’s best scene: a tense prison conversation between Isabella and Claudio, in which she explains the “devilish mercy” Angelo has offered, hoping that her brother won’t ask her to trade her soul for his head. The scene was played with the actors facing each other, seated, and speaking through telephones—as if in a prison visiting booth. Much of the exchange was agonizingly slow and quiet. Isabella throws up a defense of chilly dignity when her brother pleads that she accept the indecent proposal. There were moments when you could hear a pin drop."

Pete Simpson and Rinne Groff in Elevator Repair Service’s Measure for Measure. Photo credit: Richard Termine

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