Review: 'Measure for Measure' at the Long Wharf Theatre

Tara Kennedy

I was delightfully surprised with Long Wharf Theater’s presentation of Measure for Measure. A Fiasco Theater creation, I should have known that I was in for a more innovative performance. Fiasco is the group responsible for the recent New York City minimalist production of Sondheim’s Into the Woods.

Photo:  T. Charles Erickson

For those – like me – who are unfamiliar with the central plot for Shakespeare’s lesser-known comedy, I’ll fill you in: the reigning Duke of Vienna (Andy Grotelueschen) decides to leave his post for a bit, and leaves his cousin, Angelo (Paul L. Coffey) in charge with Escalus (Jessie Austrian) continuing her post as second-in-command. Angelo is known for piety and righteousness and gets right down to business: he has Claudio (Noah Brody) arrested for fornication and sentenced to death. Claudio’s friend, Lucio (Ben Steinfeld), thinks that is a bit of a harsh punishment, and with Claudio’s encouragement, goes to see Claudio’s sister, Isabella (Emily Young), who has just taken the oath of chastity in a convent. Isabella agrees to see Angelo to plead for her brother’s life. She is successful in persuading Angelo, but for a price: her virginity, which she is unwilling to give to him. The Duke gets wind of this (he is of course still hanging around Vienna disguised as a monk), and counsels Isabella and Claudio. Thus ensues a number of plots to outwit Angelo involving multiple instances of mistaken identity – including a sexual bait-and-switch – which brings us all to a happy ending (it being a comedy and all).    

All of the actors play multiple roles and do so with brilliant effervescence and energy. There was not one flaw amongst the actors in this extremely well-acted performance. Mr. Steinfeld’s Lucio was filled with humor and fun; he often received a burst of applause following his scenes. Ms. Young’s Isabella was compelling and engaging; she had me hanging on her every word during her appeal for her brother’s life. 

Additional elements enhance the experience: a cappella musical numbers set the Elizabethan mood perfectly; full disclosure: I have a huge aversion for a cappella music and I truly enjoyed these musical interludes, which speaks volumes. The addition of cello and percussion between and during scenes was also a nice bonus. I am a big fan of minimalist sets. I feel the performers should be the focus; I find using fewer set pieces often leads to innovative and clever set design. Measure for Measure takes advantage of minimalist design with movable doors and a few interchangeable pieces. These were credibly trans-formative and inventive. 

Measure for Measure is an intriguingly fun, thoroughly enjoyable production with a pinch of bawdy and a dash of charm: a real treat for any theater lover! Running now through December 20th.