Native Son: By Nambi E. Kelley; Directed by Seret Scott
Measure for Measure: By William Shakespeare; Directed by Janet Zarish
Produced by The Acting Company
Off Broadway, Adaptations of Classics
Runs through 8.24.19
The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street
by Dan Rubins on 8.4.19
Galen Ryan Kane in Native Son. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
BOTTOM LINE: Two shows are better than one? In this case, only one of The Acting Company's pair of productions burns bright: Nambi E. Kelley's passionate adaptation of Native Son.
Sometimes subtle is better. It’s no secret that Measure for Measure, suddenly among Shakespeare’s most-produced plays, has ripened into blazing relevance. The story of would-be nun Isabella (Rebekah Brockman), who’s forced to choose between sleeping with the corrupt politician Angelo (Sam Lilja) or letting her brother Claudio (Lorenzo Jackson) die, has #MeToo pertinence in spades. The way Angelo’s quid pro quo agreement rolls off his tongue (“Redeem thy brother/By yielding up thy body to my will,” he demands) and his certainty that he’ll win any he said-she said battle (“Who will believe thee, Isabel?,” he crows) come straight out of the 21st century harassment playbook.
So Measure for Measure doesn’t need the glaring visual cues that Janet Zarish delivers throughout The Acting Company’s production to show us why the play matters today. It certainly doesn’t need the voiceover news broadcast citing the #MeToo movement as the show begins. It also could do without Angelo and the spurned Mariana (Laura Gragtmans) testifying through microphones at wooden desks in a clear callback to Brett Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.
Zarish strips down Measure to a 95-minute cut that leaves little but Isabella’s quest to save her brother, who’s on death row for impregnating his girlfriend. As in the last Measure I reviewed, The New Collectives’ production in May, all the comic side-plots—which center the hypocrisy, corruption, and decadence of Vienna’s brothels and prisons—get the axe here. It’s worth noting that the best production of Measure for Measure I’ve seen—Fiasco’s six-actor tour-de-force in 2015—was also the funniest: despite the play’s disturbing core, Measure for Measure was billed as a comedy for centuries. Productions should use what humor there is to find out just why.
And with little emotional variation, even this slimmed-down version becomes tedious, with few performances popping out besides Gragtmans’ fraught Mariana, who triumphantly and vengefully tears into Angelo in the final scene and then pleads to save his life, arguing that “the best men are molded out of faults.” She’s laden with nuances and contradictions (it’s Mariana who takes Isabella’s place in the play’s famous “bed trick,” itself an act of questionable morality), realer and more puzzling than anyone else in a production that prides itself on extrapolating one-to-one correspondences between Shakespeare’s text and the text of 2019.
All the more credit, then, to Seret Scott, director of the taut, tense 90-minute production of Native Son that runs alongside Measure for Measure with much of the same cast. Staging Nambi E. Kelley’s ferociously theatrical 2014 adaptation of Richard Wright’s classic 1940 novel, Scott sticks strictly to the early 20th century setting.
But you don’t need the signposts to find harrowing contemporary relevance in the story of a black New Yorker, Bigger Thomas, who wrestles with an increasingly strangling pressure to become the “black rat son of a bitch” that the white world wants him to be. An Othello with Iagos both inside his head and all around him (this adaptation begins with the Shakespearean image of Bigger accidentally suffocating a white woman in her bed), Bigger is given seething, sorrowful life by Galen Ryan Kane (a superb actor woefully underused in >Measure).
That internal Iago comes to life in the form of Jason Bowen’s compelling, humanoid “Black Rat,” one of Kelley’s creative twists on the novel. Black Rat tails Bigger throughout the play, lurking in the shadows and urging him to conform to the cookie cutters that society has constructed for him.>
At times, Kelley’s adaptation feels full-on action thriller as Bigger dodges and ducks the police (Neil Patel’s austere staircases get far more mileage here than in Measure), but by mixing and matching the novel’s timelines and interspersing scenes, Kelley draws out some provoking parallels. At one point, an intimate encounter between Bigger and his girlfriend Bessie (a moving Katherine Renee Turner) weaves in and out of images of Bigger burning the body of Mary Dalton (Brockman, 180º from her chaste, principled Isabella).
No particular link resonates between Measure for Measure and beyond the plays’ shared socio-political significance. That’s in part due to the casting: if Native Son’s principal actors of color had been placed in more notable roles in Measure, there might have been more potent interplay dialogue. As a result, the repertory season ends up feeling like two plays that happen to share the same set and some of the same actors. Only one of those plays, though, is a searing, edge-of-your-seat ride through the psychological trauma of our nation’s past and present.
(Native Son and Measure for Measure play in repertory at The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street, through August 24, 2019. The running time is 90 minutes for Native Son, 95 minutes for Measure for Measure. Performances (of one or the other) are Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays at 2 and 7; Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 2 and 7. Native Son and Measure for Measure schedules vary week to week. Tickets are $35-$70 and are available at theactingcompany.org or by calling 646-223-3010.)
Native Son is by Nambi E. Kelley, based on a book by Richard Wright. Directed by Seret Scott. Set Design by Neil Patel. Costume Design by Sarita Fellows. Lighting Design by Alan C. Edwards. Music and Sound Design by Frederick Kennedy. Wig and Hair Design by Troy Beard. Stage Manager is Bernita Robinson.
The cast is Anthony Bowden, Jason Bowen, Rebekah Brockman, Rosalyn Coleman, Laura Gragtmans, Lorenzo Jackson, Henry Jenkinson, Galen Ryan Kane, Keshav Moodliar, and Katherine Renee Turner.
Measure for Measure is by William Shakespeare. Directed by Janet Zarish. Set Design by Neil Patel. Costume Design by Jessica Wegener Shay. Lighting Design by Alan C. Edwards. Music and Sound Design by Fabian Obispo. Stage Manager is Bernita Robinson.
The cast is Anthony Bowden, Jason Bowen, Rebekah Brockman, Laura Gragtmans, Lorenzo Jackson, Henry Jenkinson, Galen Ryan Kane, Sam Lilja, Keshav Moodliar, and Katherine Renee Turner.