Arts theater review

Corrupt with virtuous seasoning

Russian troupe’s invigorating take on one of Shakespeare‘s dark comedies

8770 ivy li   anna khalilulina  peter rykov. photo   johan persson
Isabella (Anna Vardevanian) visits her brother Claudio (Peter Rykov) in prison.
Johan Persson

Measure for Measure
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Declan Donnellan
Cheek by Jowl (UK) and Pushkin Theatre (Russia)
Performed in Russian with English surtitles
Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre
Oct. 24–Oct. 28

Three giant red cubes, reminiscent of the paintings of Malevich, spin to reveal a scene: a nun praying, a man in an electric chair, and a couple fornicating. A waltz featuring the accordion accompanies these objets d’art. This production of Measure for Measure, put on by Cheek by Jowl in collaboration with Moscow’s Pushkin Theater, has a hypnotic grace that will keep you transfixed throughout, whether you speak Russian or not (don’t worry, there are English subtitles).

Measure for Measure is sometimes referred to as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” Although it is categorized as a comedy, its tone and thematic content are more akin to those of a psychological drama. Pure comedic elements are few and far between in this production, conveyed mostly by the fop, Lucio (Alexander Feklistov). If anything makes this a “problem play,” it is the controversial plot and the inexplicable motivations of the prime mover, the Duke of Vienna. Shakespeare doesn’t explicitly make the judgment call for the audience; rather, he presents both sides of the issue and fulfills his contract as a playwright by providing a resolution.

The Duke of Vienna (Alexander Arsentyev) spontaneously decides to take a brief respite from his ruling responsibilities and leaves his deputy, Angelo (Andrei Kuzichev), in charge. Angelo zealously applies himself to meting out justice. He enforces forgotten laws concerning moral and sexual licentiousness, imprisoning citizens, among them Claudio (Petr Rykov), for pre-marital sex and bawdiness. Claudio’s pious sister, Isabella (Anna Vardevanian), hears of her brother’s impending execution and throws herself on the mercy of Angelo.

Here begins the dance between virtue and vice, self-sacrifice and self-preservation. Angelo’s condition for releasing Isabella’s brother is that she gives up her virginity to him. One path results in her brother’s death, and the other, as she sees it, in her eternal damnation. Then, it turns out that the crafty Duke hasn’t left Vienna at all, but has been watching the proceedings all along disguised as a monk. He helps Isabella and Claudio concoct a plan to evade both of these distasteful fates.

At this point, it’s hard not to throw one’s hands up in exasperation. The Duke has the power to unseat Angelo at any point, and yet, he indulges in this charade. However, exasperation is held at bay both by the masterful acting from the Pushkin Theatre troupe, as well as by considering a deeper dimension to the Duke’s character. As director Declan Donnellan explains, the Duke is usually treated as a more marginal character, with the conflict between Angelo and Isabella taking center stage. Donnellan doesn’t see it that way — in his opinion, the Duke is the central figure of Measure for Measure.

In Shakespearean times, rulers would often be referred to by their seat of power, e.g. the King of France would be called “France.” So, when the Duke goes undercover as a monk to explore “Vienna,” he is simultaneously exploring his city and himself. Donnellan’s interpretation is clearly reflected in the casting of the Duke. Arsentyev portrays a simultaneously charismatic and neurotic character, one who’s never quite sure what to make of the situation but acts as though he couldn’t be more confident in his decisions.

The Duke’s fascination with Barnardine (Igor Teplov) — a condemned prisoner who can’t be executed because he won’t repent (execution is fine; sending souls to Hell is not) — and the Duke’s incomprehensible willingness to watch Angelo use the judicial system to his own ends may be symptoms of the Duke’s internal conflict, Donnellan suggests. The Duke sees parts of himself in both of these characters and can’t look away. It is indeed hard to look away from Kuzichev, who plays Angelo, and delivers some of the most memorable lines of the play. He switches between being a timid, slimy civil servant of the Duke to a ruthless despot, in a transformation that is unnerving to behold.

The plot derives depth from the conflicts between Angelo and Isabella, and between Isabella and her brother. Isabella is so firm in her religious conviction that, for her, the unequivocally right course of action is to let her brother die. Yet, to Claudio, his life has greater value than Isabella’s virtue. Both Isabella and Claudio present their cases in spellbinding monologues, and as a spectator, you try to imagine what is going through each one’s head. This conflict is by no means one confined to the Shakespeare’s world. Vardevanian delivers an impassioned performance as Isabella, depicting firm resolve and desperation, without excessive melodrama.

The entire cast was present on stage for the duration of the production, which is unusual in itself. When not playing their main roles, this cluster of people would observe the scene taking place, sometimes expressionless, sometimes reacting, sometimes townspeople, sometimes prisoners. In moments of heightened emotion, they would echo the emotions playing out in the main action. They were also the mechanism by which scene changes were effected. This crowd would surround the actors like a whirlwind, picking up those who “left the stage” and dropping off those in the next scene. The effect was one of continuous action, yes, but also evoked a corps de ballet composed of a rabble.

Other unexpected aspects that make this production shine even more brightly are the choreography (by Irina Kashuba) and the music (composed by Pavel Akimkin). The waltz motif runs like a river through the entire play. Each character is distinct in their role but when they step into the dance, they all become equally graceful. Sound effects, lighting, and all the accoutrements made for a wonderfully immersive experience.

ArtsEmerson does a fantastic job of bringing high-quality theatre from abroad to Boston, and this production of Measure and Measure is a prime example.