Watching the experimental collective Elevator Repair Service’s new take on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, at the Public Theater, I found myself starting to wonder what a visitor from another planet might make of it, having never seen a Shakespeare play, and having been told only that he was a famous and greatly admired author. The ensuing imaginary conversation, as translated from the original Martian and slightly edited for clarity, ran something like this:
Me: Well, Mr. Martian, what do you think of Shakespeare now?
He: Oh, I am very impressed with him. You Earth people certainly do like a play to be fun. He takes matters that seem to be extremely serious, morally troubling, or at times even violent, and he has the actors treat them like an animated cartoon, all funny voices and silly accents and running around. I quite liked that. We on Mars would treat such matters much more seriously. I suppose it could be because we have a much colder atmosphere, especially now that you’re afflicted with global warming.
Me: How did you feel about Shakespeare’s language?
He: Well, that is a very intriguing question. He seems to write in a very archaic style, which is often quite poetic, but at times also extremely hard to understand — partly because he makes his actors so often either scream their lines, or rattle them off in a very fast monotone without stopping to shape the meaning at all. I suppose that is why in important scenes, he projects blown-up bits of text onto the walls of the stage, but they all seem to be out of order, and they go by so quickly. You Earth people must be brilliant speed-readers. Unfortunately, Earth English is not my first language, so I had a very hard time following the story. It seemed to be about a duke who gave somebody else his power for no reason at all, and then went around pretending to be a monk and interfering with his replacement’s actions because he had never trusted him with power in the first place. That is a very odd story, but we on Mars, who have governed ourselves sanely for many, many millennia, realize that you Earthlings have a much more uncomfortable history with governmental power. You keep trusting people to fix it who turn out to be crazy or criminal, like this Angelo in Shakespeare’s story.
Me: Before we discuss the story, I should point out to you that Shakespeare did not direct the play himself. So all the effects you’ve mentioned — the actors’ speech patterns, the lines projected on the walls — come from the director, John Collins, and are part of this company’s style.
He: And Shakespeare isn’t usually part of this company?
He: Ah, that explains it. I asked the person sitting next to me if she thought Shakespeare might show up at this performance, and she said, “Probably not.” And when I asked why, she said, “He stopped answering his emails a long time ago.” On the way out, I asked someone else if he thought Shakespeare had been present, and he said, “I hope not — for his sake.” Has Shakespeare had some kind of quarrel with this Elevator Repair Service company?
Me: You might say that he and they have had an aesthetic disagreement.
He: Ah, I see. Like Alan Tudyk and Steve Martin. It was very kind of Shakespeare under the circumstances to let the Elevator Repair people do his play.
Me: Indeed. But you can see how different their approaches are.
He: Oh, yes. His writing sounds very elaborate and painstaking, while they seem to treat it much more casually, almost flippantly, tossing aside the nuances in their effort to make the performance self-consciously showy. I thought at first it might be a stage version of some famous Warner Brothers cartoon. I suppose it is because they are all too busy repairing elevators to think very deeply about their roles. And yet I must say that, for all the silly, superficial things they do, every detail seems to have been carefully chosen and calculated. It’s just that what they do has so little relation to the story that I thought Shakespeare was telling us.
Me: I should probably tell you that Shakespeare is not alive. He wrote his plays many, many years ago.
He: Aha! I suspected as much. From the clothes the actors were wearing, I assume that he wrote this play some time in the 1950s, though their manners and diction seem rather archaic even for that ancient era. The actress playing Isabella, Rinne Groff, looked charmingly chic for 1955 in her modified pillbox hat and A-line suit, designed by Kaye Voyce in the spirit of Dior. I was quite startled when they said she was a postulant in a convent. Was Vogue magazine published by nuns? We poor Martians find your cultural history full of such puzzling arcana.
Me: In a more traditional production she would probably not be costumed that way.
He: So this was not a traditional production?
Me: Not in the least.
He: And in a traditional production they don’t use 1920s dance-band music? Or those 1920s telephones?
Me: No. Unless the production is consistently set in the 1920s.
He: And in a traditional production everyone doesn’t instantly fall down when the Duke takes off his friar’s robe?
Me: No, not unless the director has conceived the whole play as something like an animated cartoon.
He: But it’s not really conceived that way here. When Isabella went to visit her brother in prison, it was like a scene from a very serious 1950s movie, except that they were talking on those old-fashioned telephones, and the pauses were very, very long.
Me: Yes, this company uses every kind of effect.
He: But the effects don’t harmonize with each other.
Me: I believe that is intentional.
He: But I don’t understand, maybe because I am just a green kid. How does that help a newcomer follow what’s going on in the play?
Me: If you are seeing the play for the first time, it doesn’t. In fact, it may actually hinder your understanding. Only if you come in already knowing the play very well can you grasp the intention behind at least some of their choices.
He: That seems a horribly snobbish and outré way to present a play by Shakespeare, or anyone.
Me: It is, except that people who present Shakespeare’s plays in traditional stagings often have a snobbery of their own about how things must be done, and don’t really examine the plays for what they contain. Whereas doing the play in this silly, rowdy way at least takes the curse of pomposity off of it, and makes it seem diverting enough that someone who came in knowing nothing about Shakespeare might be interested enough to start learning more. Most American audiences are terrified of Shakespeare and believe that they won’t understand him.
He: So you believe that tossing Shakespeare around and making silly nonsense of him this way is the best approach?
Me: No, of course not. The best would be to do his plays with a simple, straightforward understanding of the way he wrote them, so that everybody could grasp the basic sense of the story and those who were intellectually curious could perceive more in it. But if theaters won’t approach Shakespeare that way, it’s better for the public at least to think that there’s some silly fun in it, and not just a lot of pompous rhetoric that they won’t understand. There is a lot of silly fun in Shakespeare — though some of it needs translating now, since he wrote such a long time ago. So I’m of two minds about a nonsensical approach like this one.
He: Yes, I see what you mean. I must admit, though I was terribly confused and annoyed at moments, I had a good time. I suspect that many of these actors are quite talented.
Me: Indeed they are. I’ve seen most of them in different contexts and I can tell you that Pete Simpson, the Angelo; Greig Sargeant, the Claudio; and Scott Shepherd, who plays the Duke, are all gifted actors — as is Ms. Groff, who has shown some ability as a playwright as well. They don’t appear to the best advantage here because they are all devoted to this feckless way of taking the play off its conventional pedestal and kicking it around. I wish they weren’t. I wish there were a better way.
He: I can see why. The oddity of the performance has so distracted us that we’ve hardly talked about the play at all.
Me: Oh, the play is a whole other question. Everyone who truly loves Shakespeare both loves and hates this play. It’s a perpetual problem to be endlessly debated on many levels.
He: You must tell me more about that sometime.
Me: Maybe when you’ve seen a production that conveys a better sense of what happens in it.
He: Yes. Perhaps some company that isn’t on such quarrelsome terms with Shakespeare will produce it at some point.
Me: No doubt they will.
He: But I must be going now. My SmartBrain tells me that my craft is hovering over Roswell on its way here.
Me: Have a safe trip back to your planet.
He: Thanks. You stay safe on yours.
Me: I’m all right. I never go anywhere except to the theater. Goodbye.