Cheek by Jowl, London and The Pushkin Theatre, Moscow have brought to Washington a great Measure for Measure. The experience spoke straight to the heart of what we have been living in the nation’s capital. The production contained such visceral power and emotional truth that there were audible gasps and quite a few tears from the audience. No one should miss this production.
Despite being showered regularly with strong theater productions and good solid work by a growing number of local theater companies, Kennedy Center’s World Stages series continues to up the bar, delivering world-class productions that challenge and uplift us. With this one alone, we were shown what a collaboration between a creative team and talented acting ensemble can do, given enough time and resources.
Storytelling in theater has been a history of telling the same stories but anew because of what a live audience in the moment brings to the table and how, in good theater productions, people make the shared space one that is palpably alive with electrifying energy.
Measure for Measure is Shakespeare’s play about morality, gender, and the twisting of truth to serve power. It is about the collusion to suppress the truth in order to hold onto power. The story follows a virtuous young woman, a nun, who tries to save the life of her brother, condemned for licentiousness by the man who then turns around and tries to seduce then rape her in a proposed “deal” to free her sibling.
Never has the play spoke so directly to an audience in my experience. I’ve mentioned that there were several times when the audience audibly gasped. When Angelo asks the nun to lay down “the treasure of her body,” he then meets her shocked and angry response with, “Who will believe you, Isabella?” and later, “My false outweighs your truth.”
When the Duke, Alexander Arsentyev,who has been absent and living in disguise finally returns to take up his reins of power, he takes his time to present himself to the masses, practically taking a victory lap or at least a stroll on the red carpet, which has been unctuously rolled out by his toadies in preparation for his arrival. The lights come up in the auditorium, as his character positively glows from the adulation. The actor Arsentyev eggs on the audience to clap then looks out and begins to scan the room, pointing to everyone of us as if to say, “And where were you? What part did you play in stopping it?”
Measure for Measure
closes October 13, 2018
Details and tickets
When Isabella, the nun, played with an exquisite mixture of moral strength and trembling vulnerability by Anna Vardevanian, walks down through the aisle of the theater and then up onto the stage, she has to face the blinding light and go very public standing in front of a microphone to face her accuser. We live the awkwardness, the terror, and the courage of another woman who so recently came to Washington and stood up to power.
Director Declan Donnellan also cleverly evokes other cultural references and has staged images that powerfully, if subliminally, conjure our shared history of other “great productions” that spanned the twentieth century and burn these images into our heads. (This may be a clue to Donnellan’s dominating awards for many of his productions since the 1980’s.) We see a man’s naked torso from the back, a physical beast of a man towering over a slight woman, locking her in an embrace and dominating her with his force – O’Neil’s The Hairy Ape. A young man mounts a standing bass from the side and rides it while he’s playing the instrument – riding and playing for his life –a la Peter Schaeffer’s Equus.
A motif that gets carried throughout the play as both stills and in the brilliantly integrated choreography (Irina Kashuba) is the ensemble, almost always on stage and moving as a single organism: marching, shifting, swirling and sometimes sweeping like a “Crack the Whip” game around the stage. When the play opens and the ensemble wordlessly repeats a march downstage then across then up and off only to reappear again, they set up a language style and the production’s rhythm for the audience. I was put in mind of mass movements, bands of socialist workers uniting, reassembling and returning to fight the fight. (Surely, this production has its own story speaking to power, when it plays in Russia.)
The ensemble moves as a unit throughout the production with precision and physical expressiveness of well-trained dancers. Then the group deposits one or more actors for the next scene downstage before they withdraw, often reconfiguring in another corner of the stage. They symbolize a public that must bear witness as well as play a part in this our story.
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The set is mostly a bare stage, befitting a piece choreographed so closely to dance. Nick Ormerod, co-founder and close collaborator with Donnellan of Cheek by Jowl, breaks up the space with an abstract pattern made of enormous, taller than six-feet, red plastic cubes. They are easily rearranged as needed. Above are row upon row of floodlights that when turned up full remind me nothing so much as a giant interrogation cell.
The acting is to a man and woman gorgeously strong, another hallmark of Russian theater. There are indeed no small parts. They bring both complexity of intention and exquisite physicality to every role. Yuri Rumyantsev as Escalus is a clown that uses every part of his torso, facial muscles, and by extension his flapping fan, in character to steal unabashedly every scene. Petr Rykov plays Isabella’s brother, Claudio, who goes from defiant jailbird to groveling penitent to his sister for her to redeem his life by sacrificing her virtue– and then he tips into a kind of predatory madness. Andrei Kuzichev is the most unlikely of villains – right? – a bespectacled, entitled, respectably-suited bureaucrat – oh, but how he does serve up villainy! Even Igor Teplov as the “stand-in” condemned man Bernadine, towers over the others and though few of lines, represents fully the little man, flawed surely but simply used as a pawn by others.
Arsentyev dominates the stage as the Duke who goes undercover as a friar for much of the play. As the friar he plays a hooded but listening “back figure,” but when he emerges full as the Duke we see a leading man presence exuding entitled power. He shows us a man who is being strategic, holding his fire. But I think the question is left as to the man’s own motives and moral compass.
The women have etched equally indelible characters. Anna Vardevanian as Isabella must hold our attention with her moral rectitude, as an ardent and yet contained nun. Hold our attention she does with her gripping performance and emotionally wrenching journey. Elmira Mirel and Anastasia Lebedeva both make striking moments in their shorter appearances.
Who says theater cannot change you? I was present at the Bitef Fesitval in1976 when Yuri Lybimov brought his Theatre Na Taganke for the first time out of Russia and the company performed Hamlet with the then infamous “Bob Dylan of Russia,” Vladimir Vyzotsky. I was shattered by the experience, the beauty and power in the work, the clarity of a production that had no Fortinbras at the end because, as Lyubimov said afterwards, “In Russia, we have no man riding in on a white horse to save us, and the tragedy of our Hamlet is that he knows this and stands up to power anyway.” The show changed the direction of my theatrical life.
Seeing this production, I feel once again I have been once again shaken to my core, knowing this is what theater can and should be.
There are only three more performances (through October 13.) Grab, beg, or steal a ticket.
Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare. Directed by Declan Donnellan. Designed by Nick Ormerod. Lighting Designed by Sergey Skornetskiy. Choreography by Irina Kashuba. With Alexander Arsentyev, Yuri Rumyantsev, Andrew Kuzichev, Alexander Feklistov, Petr Rykov, Nikolay Kislichenko, Ivan Litvinenko, Vladimir Ziberev, Igor Teplov, Alexey Rakhmanov, Anna Vardevanian, Elmira Mirel, and Anastasia Lebedeva. Produced by – Cheek by Jowl and The Pushkin Theatre Moscow. Presented by the Kennedy Center as part of its World Stages 2018-2019 Season at the Eisenhower Theater. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.
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