Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Two-Play Weekend

MEASURE FOR MEASURE is a problematical play. Modern audiences have difficulty comprehending Isabella’s choices, all of the characters are unlikable, and in the final moments, the Duke may be as low and vain as the fallen Angelo.

The primary problem with the Public Theater’s bizarre production is that the audience members who do not already know the play, the characters, the story, will not have a clue what’s happening in this production by the Elevator Repair Company.

Some of the acting is fine, but the direction by John Collins is not.  Too damn clever in a concept, and greatly lacking in storytelling.  The Public Theater calls it "an experimental production."  Apparently the experiment is how to not tell the tale.  

Happily, the excellent Scott Shepherd as The Duke was comprehensible and funny and took us all into his confidence. That helped. Rinne Groff was an excellent Isabella, attempting modernity for a difficult character. Pete Simpson as Angelo was just odd, Mike Iveson as Lucio alternated between hilarious and annoying, which sounds like a good impersonation of Lucio. Vin Knight as Escalus was serviceable. Most of the cast, however, was sub-par, for which I believe the director must be held to account.

What the Public calls “technological dramaturgy” is reliance on the projection of Shakespeare’s script on the walls of the stage, presumably hoping we’d read the words we could not hear. The beginning of the play was directed for everyone’s speech to be so fast the audience could not comprehend it. It was a relief when the speech slowed to molasses as Isabel met her brother, the lusty Claudio, in prison. This pivotal scene is a painful conversation, and while it may, in reality, feel excruciatingly slow, unfortunately that is not theatrical. The long pauses may have felt emotionally earned to the actors, but not to the audience. Then the play sped back up again, dolls were tossed about, and finally the play was over.

Measure for Measure is a challenge for any director, but there’s no need to toss the baby out with the bathwater.


THE TREASURER by Max Posner at Playwrights Horizons is beautifully played by a cast of four (two of them in multiple roles). Unfortunately, conceptually interesting as the play might have been, it has no beginning, a muddle of a middle, and no ending.

Even as directed by the brilliant David Cromer, this doesn’t feel like a play, but a pondering.

Laura Jellinek’s spare and practical scenic design served the space well, and costume design by David Hyman fit the characters. What fit the characters even better were the wonderful actors portraying them:
  • Peter Friedman in the title role — nameless, only “The Son” in the program, to whom no one refers by name. Straightforward, simple, real, and perhaps the play’s “Everyman.” 
  • Deanna Dunagan is heartbreaking as the mother, Ida Armstrong — she definitely has a name, and wants everyone to know it. Ms. Dunagan shrinks rather than grows in the role, her gradual physical decline is perfection. She forces us to enjoy Ida, no matter how self-centered she was.  After all, while most women grow up to fall into the role of mother, not all of them are suited to it, or want it. Ida insists she was a child when she married and when she had her children, but then she grew up and found true love. It seemed to me that she remained a child leaving everything to her more romantic second husband and then to her children when he died.
  • Marinda Anderson and Pun Bandhu play the remaining roles of The Son’s two brothers as well as a salesperson and other strangers. Each character is clearly delineated by these fine actors. It was, however, initially confusing to hear a woman playing one of the brothers.

The play, even more than the Son, asks what is really owed parents who desert their children? “The Son” clearly feels his mother demands too much and isn’t necessarily entitled to it, but also thinks he’s wrong to resent her. Ida had no guilt over her poor performance as a mother; why has The Son such guilt over what he perceives as his poor performance as a son? Dutiful as he is, because he cannot love his errant mother, he’s sure he’s going to hell.

The play is not dull because the characters — as written and as acted — are not dull. It just doesn’t go anywhere. Well, perhaps on an escalator to hell.

Note: The program, of course, includes too much opinion from the artistic director of Playwrights Horizons and the playwright, so the play cannot live up to their emotional connection with their journey with the play. Which is why such things should only be read, if at all, after the performance.