The New York Comedy Club has to be one of the dreariest rooms in New York. Battleship-gray walls, dim lighting, and a surly wait staff are hardly an auspicious setting for a production of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. What a wonderful surprise, then, when not 15 minutes into the production it became apparent that a total transformation of time and place had taken over, and the magic of live theatre had once again asserted its power over circumstance.
The Bard's tragicomic treatise on the abuses of power is particularly relevant to the current political climate in New York City, and Jason Kendall's mostly terrific production took advantage of that relevance with subtle but pointed glee. Purists beware: there was nothing reverential, weighty, or traditional here. Kendall freely interpolated rap, current street language, and hip-hop into the mix (not unlike the current Off-Broadway smash The Bombitty of Errors), and the result was one of the freshest, smartest, and funniest evenings in recent memory. If Kendall wasn't entirely successful in solving the play's abrupt tonal changes, his production was so joyously alive, so vital, and so entertaining that it didn't matter. By treating the text respectfully but without awe, Kendall and his winning ensemble made the 400-year-old play as fresh as tomorrow's headlines.
Using very little in the way of setting or lighting, the play and performances had to carry the evening, which they did with refreshing ease. The costumes, however, did add to the characterizations, especially those for Mistress Overdone (the hilariously strident Heather Berman), one of which provoked outright guffaws for its outrageous accuracy for character and situation. (Design by Kendall, a true Renaissance man.)
The one weak link was Donna Stearns as Isabella. She worked gamely and did score a few touching moments, but the enormous demands of the role were just outside her grasp. According to her program bio, her only other brush with Shakespeare was as a spear-carrier in Romeo and Juliet. She should have tackled a few smaller assignments, perhaps a Lady Capulet or two, before taking on a role that has defeated actresses with far greater experience.
But the rest of the cast was sublime and kept the action whirling at such a dizzying pace that any weaknesses were camouflaged by the infectious high spirits. With so many outstanding performances, it seems unfair to single out only a few, but special mention must be made of Michael Dufault, a brooding Duke; Rob Addison, delightful as Lucio; Tim Gore's fabulous Constable Elbow; and the incredible Werner Pauliks as Pompey - what a find! Special kudos also to Letty Ferrer's warm portrayal of the kindly Provost, all the more commendable for not letting a broken foot get in the way of her performance.
While not everything was up to the standards aimed for, Kendall and company are to be congratulated for taking the risks they did and making so many of them pay off so handsomely. Go, see, enjoy.
(Also featuring Lynn Antunovich, Bob Armstrong,
Ralph Carideo, Melinda Ferraracio, Matthew Iott,
Aaron Macarelli, John San Nicholas, and Greg
Waller. Original music composed and performed by John Mattzie.)
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Copyright 2000 Doug DeVita