Free Will!

Not for nothing are Shakespeare’s so-called problem plays called so. Inexplicable things happen to irrational people; unhinged persons zigzag across an unmoored world. If things arbitrarily end well, it is not because all is even approximately well with the world. Measure for Measure is typical: Evil may be either premeditated or spontaneous; good is always capricious, and triumphs only by whim or accident. But for the grace of the deus ex machina, Measure for Measure would have turned into King Lear.

Why does the seemingly sane Duke Vincentio hand over his duchy of Vienna to the young, green, unpredictable deputy, Angelo, while he, rather capriciously, goes off to spy disguised on his subjects? And if he must, why not empower his other deputy, the mature, wise, dependable Escalus? Christian interpreters of the play argue that God works in mysterious ways. But if Vincentio is indeed God, as I think he is, his ways are capricious, megalomaniacal, borderline psychotic. Well, yes, absolute power corrupts absolutely, as it would also the chastely angelic Angelo if the duke didn’t stage a last-minute rescue for his own aggrandizement.

The director of the play must have some such overarching view of it; Mary Zimmerman, who staged the current Central Park revival, hasn’t got a clue. For her, it is Leisure for Pleasure, an invitation to run through the “heavy” parts mechanically, then have an anachronistic, disconnected, buffoonish wallow with the rest, one vaudeville turn after another.

Make the actors realize they are speaking sublime verse? What is verse? I wouldn’t know, and neither should anyone in the audience. Show that the irrational may have a terrifying reason? How could that serve a foolish, self-indulgent director (why not turn the city gates into a botanical display?) who just wants to connect random dots in the dottiest, most riffraff-pleasing manner? Zimmerman and her equally unfit designers have perpetrated a meaningless blob that, amoeba-like, spreads and contracts this way and that.

Daniel Ostling has designed a huge chrome contraption, half-cage, half-jungle gym, two of whose sub-cages imprison artificial trees; the rest, the artless actors. Into this absurdity walk costumes by Mara Blumenfeld that are glad rags, eyesores, willed floutings of sense. A slovenly, drunken outlaw emerges from his jail cell in immaculate tennis whites; a woman led away to prison in black, remanded moments later, returns in white. The duke, attired in bellhop red, needs only a cloak and funny hat to become totally unrecognizable; raise the hat and, presto, he is the duke again. No charm, no style, no period to these costumes; nor is there any plan to T. J. Gerckens’s unimaginative lighting.

Only two actors know what they are doing. Herb Foster, a perennial, trusty comprimario, stars as Escalus. He knows how to move, behave, and, above all, speak verse. Felicity Jones bears herself with dignity as a well-controlled Mariana. For the rest, every variety of grossness, exhibitionism, staggering incomprehension. And not the slightest notion of how to speak verse – possibly even prohibited by the demotic director.

Take Vincentio. Joe Morton, a usually solid actor, bellows, subsides, and grandly mispunctuates his lines. Left floundering, he hits every other word as if it were a punching bag, then rattles over the next. His special nemesis is but. After every but identically explodes from his mouth, there is a three-second pause for effect, then little bang, bigger bang, on with the iambic bentameter. (But me no buts, we cry.) Take Isabella. Sanaa Lathan, a bouncy young woman whose chief credit is the movie Love & Basketball, delivers her lines dutifully, like a bemused schoolgirl spouting her assigned but uncomprehended text. Anguish, exaltation, despair – what are they to her, or she to them?

Even potentially apt actors are reduced to rubble, or rabble. Billy Crudup dribbles out Angelo’s lines like an embarrassed bystander; Christopher Evan Welch, his monkeyshines halved, might prove a plausible Pompey. Others, like John Pankow, a specialist in repulsiveness who turns the delightful Lucio into a loathsome lout, merely invite the regrettably unforthcoming hook. To rephrase those famous lines, now applied to the audience member: “Thou hast nor truth nor stage, / But as it were an after-dinner’s sleep, / Dreaming on quick escape.”

The curious thing about Strindberg’s plays is that what endures is not the symbolism of the Expressionist ones but the near-realism of the quasi-naturalist ones. The Father and The Dance of Death, yes; A Dream Play and The Ghost Sonata, no! Dated, fin-de-siècle symbolism is deader than a doornail (which at least doesn’t rot), without the ghost of a chance at survival. Not even Ingmar Bergman, whose genius I revere, can breathe life into it. Which made The Ghost Sonata from Sweden’s Royal Dramatic Theatre such a downer at bam.

True, Göran Wassberg’s décor is overzealously drab, and Pierre Leveau’s lighting standard stuff. But Anna Bergman’s costumes are fine, and the lovely Virpi Pahkinen’s minimal choreography works, especially as performed by herself. Playing the Milkmaid, though, she has the unfair advantage of having no lines to speak. The others, who do have them, are buried under the top-heavy, pretentious, smugly winking dialogue, through no fault of their own. The impossible is called for, which only Gunnel Lindblom, as the Mummy, astonishingly manages.

The best thing about the production is sizable bits of Bartók’s music in the background; I kept hoping that Strindberg would go away so that a full performance of Bartók could take over.

In Brief: Murphy Guyer’s World of Mirth is an uninteresting play about an interesting subject: carnies. Guyer knows his milieu too well; some of his lingo, references, and allusions are too opaque for non-carnies. Dona D. Vaughn, the director, had to explain the backstory, subtext, etc., to me. Too bad: The acting and directing are good; Michael Brown’s economical set captures the midway pungently; but between the concept and the realization, something got lost – mid-way… . David Rabe has done the stage some service, but his latest, The Dog Problem, is the kind of play you write when you have nothing to write about. A dopey young man seduced a mafia don’s niece, but, disturbingly, his dog also got into bed with them. The mafioso’s response: Either the dog or the man must die. Buddy, a yellow Lab, is wonderful; the play, alas, is a dog.

Measure for Measure
The play by Shakespeare, directed by Mary Zimmerman. Presented by the New York Shakespeare Festival at the Delacorte Theater, Central Park.
The Ghost Sonata
The play by Strindberg, directed by Ingmar Bergman, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (closed).

Free Will!