As a study in dissembling, with characters disguising themselves to reveal the hypocrisy of others, Measure for Measure must have been irresistible to David Herskovits: many of his previous productions with Target Margin Theater exposed the duplicities of performance itself; and here his metatheatricality is even more pointed, set against Isabella’s attempt to resist a world of mere ”seeming.”
In this Measure for Measure it’s not only the characters who have trouble sustaining their roles. On a stage outfitted with a Brechtian half-curtain and footlights, actors strike noble poses to begin a scene, only to have the action stall when someone pretends to forget his lines or another gives two different readings of the same sentence. At one point, everyone gathers around the Arden text to parse a difficult passage; during the more sententious speeches, actors read from index cards. Few scenes escape this sabotage. Background music is always humorously interrupting the dialogue. Stagehands stumble on at the most delicate moments, and at the turning points actors take seats in the audience to anticipate our reactions. This is a ”problem play” beset by slapstick problems.
Herskovits’s way of toying with illusion is occasionally strained, but unlike the work of other like-minded directors, there’s nothing solemn or self-important about this production. Its metatheatricality is antic rather than analytical, and the sheer commitment with which his company performs is often its own reward. In a recent interview Herskovits identified the strategy behind this style: ”I’m interested in fulfilling each moment [of a play] maximally,” he said, ”and not trying to reconcile it” to the others–an approach that, in his best work, creates an equally engaged audience.
And yet a style that has served the unstable, fragmented texts of earlier Target Margin productions–Hans Henny Jahnn’s Medea, for instance, and Richard Foreman’s Young Goodman Brown–threatens to obscure the main action of Measure for Measure. At the play’s center is a series of subtle psychological transformations, carefully charted to show various characters’ self-knowledge emerging from the shadows of the unconscious. Angelo and Isabella share in this progress if in nothing else: as the former confronts the power of his suppressed desire, the latter recovers the similarly buried power of her moral reasoning. Circumstance forces other characters–the Duke, Lucio, Claudio–to reconcile behavior with conscience. The play will only make sense if the step-by-step sequence of each self-examination is preserved. By changing tones so often, wrenching lines from their context, Herskovits’s actors jazz up individual passages, but in this play the old-fashioned concept of ”throughline” matters more. Only within such a structure can the characters surprise themselves instead of just their audience.
All the more remarkable, then, that amid such emphatic theatrics, Sheri Graubert as Isabella is able to steal moments to express the subtler, more ambiguous aspects of her plight. At times, her way of watching and listening to others is as expressive as her verse: under the flow of her argument one can detect the fear and self-doubt that give it such vigor. When her character flares, the entire play and production come into sharper focus–perhaps nowhere more than in its last moments, as Isabella realizes the Duke plans to marry her. In the space of a few seconds, Graubert’s face moves through confusion, dread, and anger, growing ever more alert, as if readying herself to face this latest challenge to her dignity.