Duke Vincentio of Vienna doesn’t have time to sit and chat. He’s got a dukedom to observe in disguise. “Our haste from hence is of so quick condition,” he says at the start of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, “that it prefers itself and leaves unquestioned matters of needful value.” Elevator Repair Service’s gaga production of the play at the Public Theater is in as big a hurry as the Duke, but achieves the opposite effect: it tears through the niceties of Shakespeare’s plot only to screech to nearly a full stop in the scenes of highest tension, ensuring that none of the most meaningful fragments of “needful value” passes unquestioned, if not unfelt.
Until Taylor Mac’s 2016 24-Decade History of Popular Music, Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz was the most impressive feat of durational performance to hit New York. Over the course of eight hours, star Scott Shepherd recited the entire text of The Great Gatsby from memory while the company brought the novel’s scenes to life around him.
Measure for Measure runs a comparatively svelte two hours and ten minutes, but is no less imaginative. The play, one of Shakespeare’s richest, is notoriously difficult to classify. It plays like a tragedy but ends like a comedy, alternating and sometimes blending cruelty and slapstick humor.
Vincentio (Shepherd) has left Vienna in the charge of his hypocritical deputy Angelo (Pete Simpson), whose first act is to sanction the death penalty for adulterers. When Isabella (Rinne Groff) comes to Angelo to plead for the life of her brother, Claudio (Greig Sargeant), wrongly accused under the law, Angelo offers her a Harvey Weinstein deal: he will pardon Claudio if Isabella has sex with him.
Director John Collins has incorporated his professed inexperience with Shakespeare directly into the performance. The cast reads the text on the stage walls and at the rear of the auditorium as a means of controlling the production’s pace. Such circumscription can have a deadening effect on a show, but here the restrictions literalize Shakespeare’s exploration of free will and introduce the unknown into the actors’ interpretations by giving them constant obstacles to surmount.
The performances, as a result, are entirely unpredictable from moment to moment. Groff's Isabella burns in righteous, slow-motion anger toward Angelo and, later, Claudio, when he suggests she accept Angelo's offer. Simpson is an acrobatic, neurotic wonder as Angelo. He spins his necklace, slaps the table, and thrashes in contorted tics and twitches as his bent for justice contends with his carnal weakness. Rendering Angelo sympathetic could have undone the whole piece, but Simpson’s gestures are so off the wall that sympathy becomes unimaginable.
For all its irreverence, Measure for Measure isn’t as pristine or insightful as Target Margin’s similarly deconstructive Mourning Becomes Electra last spring, but it is fun as hell, once one adjusts to the production’s deceptively perfunctory rhythms.
Many of the ERS hallmarks are on display: projected text, manic energy, broad physical humor. The piece lives or dies by its technology, which incorporates “programmable proprietary teleprompter software” designed by Shepherd (inspired by his work with the similarly tech-philiac Wooster Group), giving cast members control over light and sound cues, and immaculate projections designed by ERS regular Eva von Schweinitz, which slice, stretch, and reshape Shakespeare’s text.
The Bard often writes himself into corners, piling mishap upon mishap and mistaken identity upon mistaken identity. His endings can feel arbitrary, and Measure for Measure may have the most arbitrary of them all, as Vincentio grants pardons and rights wrongs almost as an after-thought. The play has carefully constructed an argument about justice vs. mercy over the course of five acts, only to reveal that each is as much the product of caprice as everything else in this world. It’s either botched dramaturgy or uncompromising existential truth, but Elevator Repair Service’s production doesn’t say.
There’s not much heat in this challenging production of a problematic play, but ERS’s eccentric stagings have never been about warming hearts. They’re more interested in searching out new theatrical shapes. If this modern Shakespeare doesn’t quite coalesce, it still makes for a damn interesting bricolage.
Elevator Repair Service’s Measure for Measure runs through Nov. 12 at The Public Theater (425 Lafayette St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and information, call (212) 967-7555 or visit publictheater.org.