Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is a comedy—technically. None of the characters die (though several have close brushes with execution) and it does end with several marriages pending: two are punishments handed down from the Duke, and a possible third is presaged by the Duke’s abrupt proposal of marriage (“if you’ll a willing ear incline/ What’s mine is yours, and what is yours is mine”) to Isabella, the heroine whom we met as she prepared to enter a convent. In most productions, this line is a non-sequitur, an unexpected proposal from a ruler who spent much of the play masquerading as a friar. I’ve often seen Isabella back away from the Duke on this line, and I’ve never left a production thinking she wants to marry him. In the current production at the Public Theater by the company Elevator Repair Service, the Duke’s proposal is less of a non-sequitur, simply because it’s exactly of-a-piece with the eccentric caprice of this version of the character, played by company mainstay Scott Shepherd. When the Duke bounds offstage after his line, he leaves the whole cast, not just Isabella, standing stock-still and shell shocked by this latest ducal bombshell.

Elevator Repair Service is a tight-knit ensemble renowned for frenetic takes on canonical texts. Their eight-hour, word-for-word, marathon enactment of The Great Gatsby (Gatz) was widely praised, and their dramatization of a Supreme Court case (Arguendo) made the Justices’ struggle to issue a modest, narrowly-tailored ruling in a case about nude dancers into compelling drama. This Measure for Measure, Elevator Repair Service’s first foray into Shakespeare, also deals with the messy intersection of law and sexuality—the play’s plot kicks off when the Duke, worried he lacks the credibility to start enforcing Vienna’s strict anti-fornication laws, pretends to leave his city and puts his puritanical deputy Angelo in charge. In this production, however, Elevator Repair Service’s madcap experimentation robs the text of much of its weight. The result is a raucous riff on Measure for Measure that shortchanges the play’s story and themes by leaving us with the distinct impression the whole thing is a lame practical joke played by the Duke on the other characters.

The vice and ugliness that earn Measure for Measure its reputation as a “problem play” are all still here, but mostly played for laughs. Angelo (Pete Simpson) condemns Claudio (Greig Sargeant) to death as a punishment for premarital sex. When Claudio’s sister, the soon-to-be nun Isabella (Rinne Groff) pleads for his life, Angelo’s lust is awoken, and he offers Isabella an obscene bargain: her chastity for her brother’s life. Here, Angelo is all slapstick pratfalls, flinging recalcitrant pens and phones around everywhere he goes. Even as he attempts to extort sex from Isabella, Simpson goes for broke on comic physicality. He’s a Tex Avery cartoon wolf given ungainly life.

The tragedy of this Vienna is that everyone treats the story as a farce. Only Isabella and Claudio know the stakes of the situation are life-and-death, damnation-and-salvation. Shakespeare wrote some of the officers of the law and denizens of the underworld as clowns—Elevator Repair Service has Angelo and the Duke clown around too, even incorporating severed heads and dead bodies into grim sight gags. But the seriousness comes through in the production’s best scene: a tense prison conversation between Isabella and Claudio, in which she explains the “devilish mercy” Angelo has offered, hoping that her brother won’t ask her to trade her soul for his head. The scene was played with the actors facing each other, seated, and speaking through telephones—as if in a prison visiting booth. Much of the exchange was agonizingly slow and quiet. Isabella throws up a defense of chilly dignity when her brother pleads that she accept the indecent proposal. There were moments when you could hear a pin drop.

Unfortunately, the scene was not worth the motif it represented. The pace of text was modulated throughout the production by a teleprompter. The text scrolled on the teleprompter (and occasionally in projections on the set itself) at variable speeds to make the actors speed up and slow down their delivery. The company was clearly excited to discover the power of varying tempos in rehearsal. A note from the artistic director John Collins in the program says “The experiment with the pacing of dialogue was particularly revelatory when applied to the Isabella/Claudio prison scene.” The projections arose from a reading when the company ran short on printed scripts and projected an online script onto the wall. Collins writes that he found this effect “surprisingly gratifying” and so found ways to bring into the performance. For the audience, however, it’s merely distracting. The projections onto the set should have been cut. Whatever inspiration they offered should have been digested by the cast, and then the technological gimmickry should have been left behind in the rehearsal room. When we see words scrolling and actors delivering lines at top-speed to keep up, we don’t primarily see a topsy-turvy city of characters in conflict but a group of actors wrestling with a text they’ve made into more of an obstacle than an opportunity.

Shakespeare’s Duke sees his city as a diseased body politic. He explains: “our decrees,/ Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead;/ And liberty plucks justice by the nose;/ The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart/ Goes all decorum.” He deceives Angelo, Isabella, and his other citizens in hopes of testing their virtues and finding some cure for Vienna’s ills. Wise or unwise, ethical or unseemly, his actions have a goal. As portrayed in this production, though, the Duke never seems to care about much more than his own amusement. His pseudo-Friar and floppy-haired aristocrat are simply two masks of a mad scientist tinkering with his city for the hell of it. Which makes this production, like this Duke’s Vienna, a fascinating but mostly failed experiment.

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