John Collins’ Elevator Repair Service theater company has done some remarkable things with texts — notably the entirety of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” in “Gatz.” But they stumble badly in their first foray into Shakespeare, a misbegotten revival of “Measure for Measure” that opened Tuesday at Off Broadway’s Public Theater in New York.
“Measure” is one of the Bard’s so-called “problem plays,” an uneasy mix of farcical comedy and moral philosophizing that got a nearly successful revival from British director Simon Godwin this summer at Brooklyn’s Theater for a New Audience.
But Collins & Co. amp up the comedy to a manic, Marx Brothers degree — and completely obliterate any sense of the language of the play.
In fact, the production’s prevailing conceit is to project chunks of the text onto the walls of the stage and to have the cast read from it — or from an actual Teleprompter screen above the audience at the back of the theater — at either a slowed-down pace or at a breakneck clip.
At times, as in a drawn-out prison scene between the novitiate nun Isabella (Rinne Groff, strangely flat) and her wrongly condemned brother Claudio (Grieg Sargeant, nicely soulful), the effect can be mesmerizing, causing us to consider the relationships anew.
At other times, though, characters fly through their lines as if dashing off the disclaimer in a commercial for a car or pharmaceutical — losing not just the meaning but the poetry of Shakespeare’s play. (Only Scott Shepherd, as the confounding Duke, and Mike Iveson, as the snarky nobleman Lucio, come close to doing justice to the Bard’s words.)
Worst of all is a key scene between Isabella and Angelo, the strict moralist (and hypocrite) who abuses his power when the Duke of Vienna decides to go on sabbatical. He’s the one who’s condemned Claudio to death for getting his fiancée knocked up — but Pete Simpson plays him as a figure of ridicule in the mold of an early Jerry Lewis.
In the Theater for a New Audience production, Godwin built to the scene as the climax of a battle between two individuals who are mutually convinced of their own righteousness — but here it yields only a clash of performance styles and little else.
This misfire is no measure of what this remarkable company is capable of doing.