By William Shakespeare; Directed by Declan Donnellan
Produced by Pushkin Theater and Cheek by Jowl
Part of BAM's Next Wave Festival
Off Broadway, Classic Adaptation
Runs through 10.21.18
BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn
by Asya Gorovits on 10.18.18
Peter Rykov, Elmira Mirel, and Andrei Kuzichev in Measure for Measure. Photo by Johan Persson.
BOTTOM LINE: A shockingly bold adaptation of Measure for Measure by a Russian theater is timelier than ever in the era of #MeToo.
Measure for Measure by Moscow’s Pushkin Theater, produced in collaboration with Cheek by Jowl, is easily one of the darkest interpretations of one of Shakespeare’s problem plays. Part of BAM’s New Wave Festival, this production cuts to the chase, boldly confronting the topics of authority, power, and sexuality. Some of the minor characters are removed, and along with them the comedic elements. Straightforward and occasionally brutal physical interactions between the characters will make you gasp in haunting recognition. This Measure for Measure is unkind to its characters and unapologetically honest with its audience. If you dare to be challenged and can read English supertitles fast enough (the play is in Russian), you’ll be rewarded.
Duke (a slightly eccentric yet sensible Alexander Arsentyev) leaves Venice in order to bring into action his peculiar plan for very unconventional governing. Left in charge is Angelo (the ice-cold and razor-sharp Andrei Kuzichev), who immediately enforces the law against immorality. As the exemplary case, he condemns Claudio (Petr Rykov) for impregnating his unwed bride Juliet (Anastasia Lebedeva). Lucio (played by Alexander Feclistov as an aging S&M enthusiast) fetches Claudio’s sister Isabella (the incredible Anna Vardevanian) from the nunnery to plead with Angelo for her brother’s life. Outspoken and self-righteous, Isabella sparks a maniacal obsession in Angelo, who asks her to give her virginity to him in exchange for her brother’s life. The attempted rape scene that unfolds between Isabella and Angelo is equally disturbing and powerful. Her shriek of shame and fear—“Who will believe me?!”—pierces through time and reverberates with the #MeToo movement.
Director Declan Donnellan constructs a gloomy Kafkaesque reality where people have Italian names and guards wear Russian police uniforms. It is always tempting to see a modern-clothed classical play as a comment on the political atmosphere in a particular country. Though we should never omit the notion of the present, how far should we stretch the analogy? My non-Russian companion spotted the physical resemblance between Andrei Kuzichev (as Angelo) and Putin. It's certainly there, not even in the facial features as much, but in a kind of reserved behavior bearing an iron will and an enormous lust for power. This Measure for Measure takes the Shakespearean masquerade to a whole new meta-theatrical level, never taking the mask off entirely.
Putin or not, the atmosphere of oppression is nearly suffocating. The low-hanging rows of lights illuminate a nearly empty stage. Paired with a bare table and a few chairs, they are reminiscent of a prison interior even when the action does not take place in prison. The actors only leave the stage to change (some of them double as several characters). Most of the time, though, they stay together as a pack, watching the action from afar. The ominous presence of this silent, multi-eyed beast has an uncanny effect. This unsympathetic omnipresent gaze doesn’t belong to the eavesdropping Duke, but is a character in and of itself. Occasionally the “chorus” scatters across the stage in Brownian motion or dances in a circle like in Fellini’s 8 1/2. The choreography by Irina Kashuba also provides the play’s gloomy finale. Pardon the spoiler, but there are no happy weddings, no sense of the order being restored, just this mechanical waltz.
(Measure for Measure plays at BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, through October 21, 2018. Running time is 1 hour 50 minutes with no intermission. Remaining performances are 10/19 and 10/20 at 7:30 and 10/21 at 3. Tickets are $32 - $105 and are available at bam.org or by calling 718-636-4100. For more information visit bam.org.)
Measure for Measure is by William Shakespeare. Directed by Declan Donnellan. Designed by Nick Ormerod. Lighting Design by Sergey Skornetskiy. Music by Pavel Akimkin. Choreography by Irina Kashuba.
The cast is Alexander Arsentyev, Yuri Rumyantsev, Andrei Kuzichev, Alexander Feclistov, Petr Rykov, Nikolay Kislichenko, Ivan Litvinenko, Vladimir Ziberev, Igor Teplov, Alexey Rakhmaninov, Anna Vardevanian, Elmira Mirel, and Anastasia Lebedeva.