Some things I gathered from Smith Street Stage’s seductive new production of Measure for Measure:
Shakespeare the Feminist
It’s no great stretch to interpret Measure for Measure – which contains elements of comedy and tragedy alike – as a feminist statement. Directed in inspired fashion by Raquel Chavez and Beth Ann Hopkins, the production frames the story in the context of a protest movement against a patriarchal status quo, set in a Kafka-esque 20th-century city. Informed by The Handmaid’s Tale and post-Roe America, this version of Shakespeare’s “Vienna” could be anywhere in the Western world.
The bones and sinews of the tale, and crucially the language, are here, and they’re all Shakespeare. This streamlined telling zeroes in on Isabella, the novice nun desperate to save her brother Claudio from execution on an unjust conviction for fornication. This feminine focus is not a distortion but a dramaturgical choice that feels very natural.
Theater Still Thrives in All Corners of New York City
Still, it wouldn’t be half so effective without the brave and eloquent performance by Aileen JiaLing Wu, who carries the weight with steady assurance. Joining her is an all-around fine cast. Despite pandemic attrition and the loss of some smaller theaters to free-market real estate tyranny, I’m seeing that the pool of acting talent in New York remains strong – even in Off-Off-Broadway and outer-borough settings.
This cast delivers on multiple counts. Most importantly, they live Shakespeare’s language, not in spite of but through their natural American cadences. They have internalized the text so well that they convey the story clearly despite the archaic expressions that must needs fly over the heads of all but those Shakespeare scholars who might perchance be in attendance.
Toni Kwadzogah exemplifies this from the start, helping set the tone as she makes the humble role of the minor functionary Escalus a calm counterpoint to the dangerous Angelo. (Kwadzogah plays an impassioned Mistress Overdone just as effectively, though the production doesn’t do enough to flesh out that character and how she fits in the story.)
The innovative conception and production make good use of the large rectangular space. A brightly lit font of water in the center acts as a kind of emotional magnet and a symbol of virginal (read: moral) purity – and then of purity stained.
The sparse, cold staging adds to the characters’ stark emotionality. To enforce a Taliban-esque moral code on the stifled people of Vienna, Angelo (a tightly woven performance by Jonathan Hopkins) issues orders concerning the fate of his prisoners to the Provost (Christian Negron, who turns a small role into a compelling locus of the humane). The two communicate across the full length of the theater via red rotary telephones, with the despotic Deputy at his (somehow) fascistic desk and the Provost at a simple shelf unit that stands in not only for a gallows but for (it doesn’t take much to imagine) a whole prison-industrial complex.
Meanwhile the directors allow us enough of the play’s comic relief that Angelo’s cruelty doesn’t overwhelm us, embodied in a winning Nic Sanchez as Lucio and a squealingly good Daniella Rabbani as Pompey.
Shakespeare Still Speaks to Us
For ease of classification we situate Measure for Measure among Shakespeare’s comedies, and indeed it features comedic elements – the Duke (a well-measured Keith Hale) returning in disguise, Henry V-style, as a Friar; a long-hidden betrothal conveniently revealed just in time; and of course the comic minor characters. But it contains ambiguities as well, and tragic elements. This production plays up the latter through Isabella’s pleading and her moral quandary, and by an achingly sympathetic treatment of the despair of Claudio and his amour, the heavily pregnant Juliet (Tobias Wong and Delia Kemph respectively, both excellent).
Shakespeare understood that human nature isn’t black and white, that the intertwining of good and evil inheres in it. He depicted perhaps better than anyone else the fundamental conflicts that plague our existence alongside the joys and triumphs of which we are capable. Even as it files its powerfully chanted protests, led (interestingly) by Angelo’s long-suffering betrothed, Mariana (a fiercely determined Mahayla Laurence), this Measure for Measure smartly takes the measure of cruelty and love. It runs through Oct. 15, 2022 at the Mark O’Donnell Theater at the Entertainment Community Fund Arts Center (160 Schermerhorn Street, Brooklyn, NY). Visit the website for schedule and tickets.