My veritable panzada de teatro continued today with a visit to Chashama and Quality Meat's fascinating production of Measure for Measure named M4M.
First the location. Chashama, like so many heroic organizations in NYC helps young artists of all kinds, by offering spaces all around the city. The spaces themselves are scattered throughout. This one, in the heart of a truly non-theatrical area, the cold, business-like tall-building and expensive-hotel laden East midtown area. Forty-second street. The theatre is next to a pret a manger, one would look at it and think it were an out-of-business store. The theatre has a storefront window (more on that later). We enter with my two friends and it is an intimate welcoming environment with free-wine. It feels as if you've entered into a secret-area (out of Super Mario 3 or Zelda) in a totally unknown world (I excuse my years of nintendo for the videogame reference). Theatre was small, a chair, a television (of course it will be videotaped) and a camera. There are two levels. On the upper level a trunk stands.
The blurb promises a melding of an S&M situation between a man and a woman and Shakespeare's oft bizarre play about sex, the law and the quality of mercy (there are actually a few about that).
As a director of an at-times bizarre and experiemental Shakespearean production (King Lear! April 23 at Goodrich Hall!!) I'll tell you this, it's very hard (as in you should not try, usually) to out-bizarre Shakespeare. One quick glance at the Wikipedia page (get a nice quick plot-summary) of the play will show you that, one quick read will convince you.
The director Meiyin Wang, a young artist originally from Singapore, infuses the world of paid, controlled sex and ritual with this play about the limits of order, and does so eloquently and subtlely, quite humorously. The male character (Ben Verzbow) makes his entrance and gives us a good 10 minutes as he sets up the camera, sanitizes his hands (multiple times) and gives us a few glances at his concentrated, nearly psychotic face.
Soon, the entrance of the female character (Mary Jane Gibson) happens on an inopportune moment where the man tries to lock himself in his trunk. He sprints out (one of many times he'll do so), and we're immediately prefaced the awkward, slightly funny, slightly terrifying relationship they shall develop.
Money changes hands, she strips (only to her normal clothes, no nudity here), instructions are delivered. And we see the anxious man hand clothing and such to the woman. He then directs her, in a very costumed garb to imitate a blind liberty statue by holding two glasses up. We see her hands tire, trying to hold it up and him forcing her to continue. We wonder when the sick sex will begin. It doesn't. An ipod is played. And one could not imagine a more Renaissance-faire schlockly Shakespearean straight-from-the community theatre production of Romeo und Juliet lute inspired, insipid guitar in some medieval mode. Large credit to Mark Valadez's excellent sound-design which provides us with this wondeful punch-line in the beginning and later, helps mimic the breakdown perfectly with electronic touches.
Almost on cue, the man, begins reciting in perfect Shakespeare the lines from Measure for Measure. He, of course plays all the men. Mr. Verzbow recites his Shakespeare quite well, Peter Hall would be impressed. The delivery however is wonderfully doubled by the intense sexual pleasure or relief that this following of order leads. This manages to mimic Angelo's nearly perverted obsession with order wonderfully and brings the world of the play together. The woman, placed as an object (literally, her arms forced to remain non-moving though they fail at that as well). Her delivery starts, stilted and startled, her confusion echoed by the initial powerlessness of the Shakespearean heroines.
The play begins to unfold, and it becomes unsure, as the plot develops whether we are in the world of Measure for Measure or the paid S&M game of the man and woman, and the brilliance is that it's both. We get thrust rudely back into the world whenever the woman over-reaches her bounds and touches him. HE freaks out in OCD fashion and runs away or screams or nearly hits her. I wish there were more moments like this - the breaking almost became too ordered. The discipline of the production sometimes hindered the ability for Angelo/Man (who also played the Duke and Claudio) to break back into pure-Man, except for those weak, being touched moments.
The camera, was also not truly exploited, used a bit, but the screen was so small it almost became a nod to multimedia rather than a true exploitation. But to be honest this is a minor gripe of a spectacular staging of Shakespeare.
The end of the play wins the most theatrical moment I've seen all year award. We reach a point of tension, she leaves, he begs, she returns, but now the tables are turned. The play really loses its point here, the weak-seeming Isabella doesn't get to fool Angelo (the play ends way before we get to the trickery in the resolution) instead the woman comes back and she is the powerful ones. Lines are delivered out of spite and necessity. The man gives the word and lets her tie him up. We think she will kill him, she doesn't, in spite of its liminality, there is still the apex of control. Cold money has calculated (once again, when he offers her more money) that this will end with no bloodshed and a measured amount of perversion. She ties him up, leaving him strung up, left to his own order.
Here comes the theatrical moment of the year - Chashama reveals its shop-self, as the woman pulls away the curtain and reveals the street. The world of the street, the world of 42nd street blocks away from UN (the global law) and across the street from the law of money and power, and men in suits leaving work or going to a bar. The set, through a window becomes long and endless and rainy. A truck's lights backlight the set. As the people walk by (and we see a good 10 or 12 people walk by) nobody notices the man who is strung up like a stuck pig, nor do they see the crowd of people watching. They keep walking, perhaps performing their own fantasies of order.
Meiying (and her partner in crime in Quality Meats Javierantonio Gonzalez) graduated from Columbia school of directing and though I'm not sure if Viewpoints was actually used in the production there was certainly a Bogartian treatment of space and silence - though not to obnoxious effect (as happens when Vpoints is overused) but rather to highlight the tension and illustrate the role of space between these two characters. The play of bodies in a tightly controlled sexualized environment made not only for great Shakespeare, but great, effective, and thought provoking theatre.
It's refreshing to see theatre that makes one conscious that the people presenting are definitely thinking about something other than themselves or obsessing over the play they are presenting - they are thinking about people, they are thinking about praxis, and most importantly they are thinking about theatre, goddamnit.
If you are in New York tomorrow 3.27 or 3.28, take an hour and see this play! Get your tickets at www.brownpapertickets.com. Highly recommended.
Kudos again for the second shakespeare(esque) play that hasn't put me to sleep (Ostermeier's Hamlet at Avignon was the first).
All the best, next up on theaterfest-new york: Richard Maxwell and the New York City Players, People Without History