A year ago, it looked as if the high point of the forthcoming season at Theatre for a New Audience would be a new production of Hamlet starring Oscar Isaac (who jumpstarted his career with starring roles at Shakespeare in the Park before becoming a movie star with Inside Llewyn Davis and Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and directed by Sam Gold (who is associated with contemporary works like Fun Home and A Doll’s House Part 2). But in an unusual change of circumstances, Isaac and Gold withdrew the production from TFANA and brought it to the Public Theater, where it just opened to mixed reviews (positive for Isaac’s performance, less so for Gold’s experimental treatment).
Taking the place of Hamlet as TFANA’s season finale is Measure for Measure, Shakespeare’s gripping problem play/dark drama of sex, decadence, political power, capital punishment, corruption and bad morals, which has been staged by English director Simon Godwin (associate director of the National Theatre) with a 12-member cast including Jonathan Cake (Duke Vincentio), Cara Ricketts (Isabella) and Thomas Jay Ryan (Angelo).
TFANA produced Measure for Measure not so long ago while it was still in residence at the Duke on 42nd Street. The play has also been produced recently at Shakespeare in the Park and by Fiasco Theater. However, I can’t think of any prior production of the play that took the crowd on a multi-level tour of Mistress Overdone’s brothel (which is shut down by the local authorities once Angelo comes to power). Upon obtaining their tickets in the lobby of the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, audience members can either head straight to their seats or check out live displays of various kinky activities, adding an elaborate and expected dose of environmental theater (like a miniature-sized Sleep No More).
Godwin’s production then begins with a flurry of masks and hard drugs (evoking the kind of exclusive, secret, high-priced sex club you occasionally hear about in the tabloids). Cake, as the Duke, is then shown facedown on the floor following a night of all-out revelry. It is here that the Duke suddenly announces his intent to take an indefinite leave of absence and hand over the reign of power to Angelo. This is the first production of the play I have seen to imply that not only does the Duke feel that he is unable to wipe the city free of decadence, but he too is participating in it, which helps explain why he feels the need to abstain himself due to a conflict of interest and call in a special prosecutor. Maybe the Duke is one of Mistress Overdone’s customers.
Cake (whose heartthrob looks and swagger have served him well in roles such as Iachimo in Cymbeline and Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing) makes for an unpredictable, high-energy Duke, which reflects the character’s strange and questionable plan of action. Ryan, on the other hand, portrays Angelo as a creepy angry bureaucrat harboring deep resentments who can easily become unhinged and dangerous. One moment he is rubbing sanitizing solution on his hands, and the next he is ready to violently engage in sexual assault. Ricketts gives a dramatic arc to Isabella, in which she finds a reservoir of wit and courage she never knew she had.
Some of Godwin’s directorial touches do not work, such as turning Mariana into an indie-rock singer (who opens the second act with her band) and having about a dozen audience members sit in special front row seats, apparently to mark them as jurors. The sex shop tour is an interesting but unnecessary add-on.
For the most part, this marks an exciting and well-acted production. A companion remarked to me that Measure for Measure may be even more relevant today than Julius Caesar (which recently received the Trumpified treatment at Shakespeare in the Park). After all, we are living in a world where Trump, a billionaire playboy who would proudly boast about his sex life, is now threatening women’s reproductive and contractive rights. His troubling comment on the campaign trail that women who underwent an illegal abortion would need to be punished came to mind as I watched Measure for Measure, just as how the pregnant Juliet is imprisoned and her lover Claudio is sentenced to death for having sex outside of marriage. When Angelo revives ancient moralistic codes, chaos and danger ensue. It is not hard to imagine that happening here soon.