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Taking 'Measure' of Shakespeare's Language

Date: Oct 06, 2017

Elevator Repair Service deconstructs the Bard's problem play


In 2013, Nicholas Hytner, the then artistic director of London's National Theatre, wrote an op-ed in which he confessed that Shakespeare perplexes him. John Collins, the artistic director of the Obie-winning experimental theatre troupe Elevator Repair Service, agrees: the Bard is ridiculously hard. Not eat-your-spinach hard or just-concentrate hard; these are 400-year-old texts riddled with archaic references, obsolete vocabulary, and wordplay dated to the point of nonsense. Add to that Shakespeare's poetic tropes and rhetorical twists, and you have a body of work that is performed all the time, around the world, despite the fact that whole swaths are gibberish to modern ears. Collins accepts this. In fact, the intrinsic bizarreness of Shakespearean language is foregrounded in his company's new mounting of Measure for Measure, currently running at the Public Theater.

Over the years, Collins and his ensemble have never been shy about deconstructing texts in quirky and surreal fashion. During their seven-hour epic Gatz, they delivered every syllable of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. They've also staged language-instruction manuals, audio tracks from talk shows and documentaries, even the transcript of a Supreme Court case (Arguendo). But Shakespeare was heretofore undiscovered country. "I was never attracted to do it as performance," Collins says, "partly because I didn't see any place in the real-time energy of live performance to do all that stuff you do when you're studying it: going back and forth to the footnotes, flipping the page back and noticing parallels, or just observing things about the meter and the way it looks on the page."

In other words, Collins found a "disconnect" between the pleasures of understanding Shakespeare in print and the actorly compromises that try to make it intelligible on stage. It's a problem. So what better place to start than with a "problem play?" One of the Bard's least loved and most challenging works, Measure for Measure is a tale of justice and hypocrisy, and the limits of government control of sexual desire in 16th-century Vienna. Abusive and manipulative leaders, draconian laws, sexual harassment and blackmail, and kinky deception all figure in the convoluted narrative. And even by Elizabethan standards of anything-goes dramaturgy, the final scene is an orgy of WTF contrivance.

You may have seen your share of Measure for Measure mountings over the years (Theatre for a New Audience tackled it over the summer and the Public last did it at the Delacorte in 2011), but this take is refreshingly textured and oblique. The set is an arrangement of conference-room tables with vintage candlestick telephones. (I noted it looked like a community-theater Front Page, and Collins copped that a visual source was His Girl Friday, the 1940 movie adaptation of that Hecht-MacArthur comedy.) The ensemble acting style is Golden Age of Hollywood screwball, with lines barked and rattled off less with concern for clarity than style and contrast. With their ancient puns and obscure jokes, Shakespearean clown scenes are rarely funny, but, by not trying to make literal sense, these achieve a sort of loose, absurdist goofiness. As the foppish gossip Lucio, actor Mike Iveson prattles with a Jersey Shore drawl in a way that is impossible to "get," but is highly amusing. As with all Elevator Repair Service shows, the sound design is omnipresent and key: We hear loops of Wagner, church organ music, and cascades of babbling voices.


Speed is a key weapon in Collins's arsenal. When the ensemble members started exploring Shakespeare in workshops, they read classic scenes aloud, playing with tempo and accents. One was the famous Isabella and Claudio prison sequence, in which the novice nun tells her condemned-to-death brother that the Deputy Angelo would only grant a pardon in exchange for her virginity. Collins suggested they recite it with excruciating slowness, taking long pauses between lines. "It was a revelation in that I could hear each word so clearly," he recalls. "It sounded like these two people were really needing those words. They were going so slowly, and they were coming out with these complex ways of saying things, but the speed change made it feel necessary."

Of course, they knew they couldn't do the entire play in slow motion, so they created a method that uses extremes of fast and slow. Audiences may notice that some actors are staring steadily at the back wall. In addition to the text being intermittently projected onto the set for visual effect, there's a video scroll of the entire script at the back of the house, cuing the speed of vocal delivery. "The teleprompter gives us a way of conducting the actors like an orchestra," Collins explains. "I think it has evolved that way; there's an interplay between the actors and the teleprompter. They generally know the lines, but they know them in that particular relationship, by reading them."

For all the tinkering, Collins insists that he's not trying to ridicule or dismiss Shakespeare -- or irritate audiences. In fact, the basic narrative of Measure for Measure comes through pretty clearly, divorced from the need to understand what each particular line means. The director proudly notes that after a recent performance, a couple of nine-year-olds correctly repeated the plot to him. "If there's a reason these plays are still around, it is because they are beautiful objects," he says. "I think we all just have to be honest that this is very strange and alien language. It's a problem that people have an expectation of hearing it in a very, very familiar way. I think people should want to hear it in unfamiliar ways, partly just to see how it holds up -- and I think it holds up beautifully."


David Cote is an arts journalist, playwright, and opera librettist based in NYC. Follow him at @davidcote. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Pete Simpson and Rinne Groff in Measure for Measure. Photos by Richard Termine.

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