Stage and Cinema film and theatre reviews

Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare – Off Broadway Theater Review




picture - Measure for MeasureTheater Reviewpicture - Measure for Measure

by Arielle Lipshaw

published February 28, 2010


Measure for Measure

now playing Off Broadway at the Duke on 42nd Street

through March 14


Moral order has given way to license and lechery, and the Duke has abandoned the city. Who will succumb to the new regime, and how will life ever return to normal? These are the questions Shakespeare explores in his complicated tragicomedy, Measure for Measure, directed by Arin Arbus at Theater for a New Audience, on the heels of her triumphant Othello last season. This time, unfortunately, Arbus has almost entirely missed the mark.


picture - Measure for MeasureThe production suffers most from poor casting throughout. Though there are some standout performers, such as John Keating as the irreverent bawd Pompey and Graham Winton as the honorable, much put-upon Provost, most of the performances are uneven at best. Elisabeth Waterston is an awkward, muted Isabella, who conveys neither the modesty nor the allure of the role, and who seems never to know what to do with her hands. She is unable to create believable relationships with any of her scene partners; the dynamic presence which should be the backbone of this play is absent. Waterston is a nonentity, while several of the other actors appear to be in completely different plays; Juliet (Rose Seccareccia) comes straight out of a Lifetime Original Movie addressing teen pregnancy, while Mariana (Alyssa Bresnahan) declaims her lines in the style of Victorian melodrama.


Actors are double-, triple-, and even quadruple-cast, and while this is an accepted and necessary convention for large-cast plays on small budgets, the parts could have been more judiciously assigned; the appearance of Denis Butkus as a different character in each of the first four scenes is distracting. At the same time, the female ensemble of “punks” is underused, a disappointing move from a director who explored women’s experiences so beautifully in Othello.


picture - Measure for MeasureTony winner Jefferson Mays (I Am My Own Wife) is a much-needed spark of life; he manages to inject the Duke Vincentio’s frankly tedious and interminable speeches (unabridged, it is the eighth-largest role in Shakespeare, and his lines comprise thirty percent of the play) with interest and physical humor.


Visually, the production is spare and stylish, set in an indeterminate time which draws on imagery from periods as variant as the red light district of 1930s Berlin and the courts of 19th-century Europe, but the intimate thrust space of the Duke on 42nd is not used to its full potential. Measure for Measure is a play in which the separation and difference between public and private space is key—how do our actions in the privacy of our bedrooms change when we are in the public street? What happens in the dark that cannot take place in daylight? Although the private spaces of Angelo’s office, the nuns’ cloister, and the city prison are delineated with thick, locked metal doors, this production contains no equivalent indication of public space. Even the final scene, in which Isabella finally denounces Angelo in the street before the Duke, seems to take place in a private chamber, with only one or two spectators, rather than the whole city, looking on.


The play’s ending is as disappointing as its beginning; though the dull synopsis in the program duly notes that Isabella is left “literally speechless,” Arbus has taken that as license not to make any final choices for her. Perhaps it is simply that, having failed to engage us with the character over the last two and a half hours, she cannot make us sympathize with Isabella’s fate in the last five minutes.


arielle.lipshaw @


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