The Elevator Repair Service’s take on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure theatrically literalizes textual fidelity.
Throughout this madcap – and often maddening – production currently playing at the Public Theatre, a screen behind the audience (and others unseen around the set and just offstage, at least judging from the actors’ gazes) project the entire text for the ensemble to read out-loud. Less a crutch for Shakespearean neophytes – though this IS ERS’s first jaunt with the Bard – this literal device dictates the pace of the performance, with the performers strictly adhering to a cue arrow that periodically speeds up and slows down (represented in the art by the hand on the “dial”). Though these changes sometimes bear thematic resonance, they’re mostly deployed for comedic effect; actors speaking Shakespearean jargon incomprehensibly quickly or in such a draaaawn out manner humorously appeases audiences, many of whom don’t believe they’d be able to follow along much better if delivered regularly.
And that might be the point. A Shakespearen text can be seen as a sort of Great Dictator; excluding contemporary translations, his much-performed texts are respected as gospel by actors and audiences alike in most productions. Directors of course put their own stamp on his/her/their (you never know!) plays, but a vast majority still speak the speech as written. Bard-phobic audiences may delight at anachronistically new-age stagings, but they still must suffer through not understanding the language, thus being unable to follow the intractable plots.
Director John Collins seems well-aware of this phenomenon. Though the actors clearly and almost robotically reading from the teleprompters can’t help but draw attention to the words, the way their performances are dictated by the prompting disregards the meaning of the language. Collins may have hoped that the farcical antics in his direction would compensate for this widespread paucity of comprehension – ultimately proving a commentary of sorts on how Shakespeare predominantly communicates superficially with average audiences today – but his approach becomes increasingly more irksome over the excessive running time, especially since the comedic modern elements lack the imaginative creativity of ERS’s best work.