The Fiasco Theater’s production of Measure for Measure, directed by company members Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld at the Long Wharf Theatre and running until Dec. 20, makes the Bard’s darkest comedy more viewer-friendly. First of all, the characters to keep track of has been shrunk from 21 to a much more manageable 11 (or 12 if you count the unseen Barnardine, a prisoner), and played by a cast of 6. And that means everyone but Andy Grotelueschen as the Duke — who disguises himself for most of the play as a friar — plays two roles.
Much of the fun starts right there.
Each member of the small cast assays roles often poles apart in moral standing or in general demeanor. Emily Young, who is the heroine Isabella, a paragon of virtue about to become a nun, is also Mistress Overdone, the madam of a brothel. Ben Steinfeld is both the taciturn Froth and the glib and oily Lucio (both crowd-pleasing comic turns).
Even the plot seems amazingly forthright in Fiasco’s direct approach. In brief: the Duke of Vienna decides to try the merit of Angelo (Paul L. Coffey) by putting him in charge while he goes on a journey (if only we could give our elected officials a try-out in this manner). Disguised, the Duke hangs about to see how things go. Angelo, with his second-in-command Escalus (Jessie Austrian) wastes no time enforcing the edicts against any “unlawful” sexual relations, punishable by death. That lands young Claudio (Noah Brody) in jail for getting his girl pregnant, and it also causes great consternation among the proprietors and customers of “bawdy houses,” such as Mistress Overdone, Pompey (Brody), and Lucio. The latter is beseeched by Claudio to get his sister, the high-toned Isabella, to plead for leniency from Angelo, which she does, only to find that he demands she sacrifice her virginity to him to prevent the death of her brother, leading to a nice, thorny moral dilemma. Making vice more general — as if giving in to Angelo “atones” for Claudio’s trespass — is not something Isabella is inclined to do, and what’s more, Angelo’s hypocrisy in leadership is appalling. The show leaves aside the darker jests about venereal disease and the “sex equals death” rationale Shakespeare explores, giving us a cleaner, leaner Measure.
But it’s a show not just for the groundlings, as a sure hand in editing shapes the characters we see. Fiasco does justice to the complexity of Isabella’s situation as she argues her views with the friar, and Groteleuschen does well as the beneficent Duke restoring order at the end. Coffey aims for a more sympathetic Angelo, lacking much of the fire and ice that gives the role its harsher qualities, while Austrian’s Escalus is even more sympathetic, a sort of likable personal assistant to a bad boss. Young provides a sensible Isabella, best in the scene when trying to urge Angelo’s mercy. Co-director Brody lets fear of death overwhelm his tremulous Claudio, while his Pompey is a memorable rogue.
The show’s clarity extends to the set, comprised of six very different doors, and it’s marvelous how well distinct spaces can be suggested by a particular sort of door—office, abbey, dungeon, chambers. This is set design as legerdemain, making the scene changes swift and immediate and always interesting. Costuming is effective as well, with enough recognizable features to make it easy to tell characters apart — such as Lucio’s doublet and Pompey’s bare torso. All of which is a way of saying that it’s a great production for students — of Shakespeare, of theater, of both — to see for its refreshing vitality and creativity. Audiences who may have been bored by more ponderous versions of Shakespeare should give the Fiasco a try, if only to have their faith restored that the virtues of this profound and meaningful play can outweigh any vices.
And Fiasco can sing! The opening of the show features a wonderful six-part harmony madrigal that gives us a taste of Elizabethan culture, and part two opens with a three-part harmony that puts the play’s situation into song. Musical Shakespeare has been done, of sorts— These! Paper! Bullets!, Kiss Me, Kate — but maybe it could be done differently. Their skills with Shakespeare and musicals continuing to win plaudits, Fiasco might just be the company to set Shakespeare to music in a more authentic manner.
Song, sex, slapstick, scandal, and settling scores. This Measure delivers great theater.