Measure for Measure

How does this performance by a cast of all black women measure up?

By Andrew Andrews

The Public Theater's Mobile Unit opens Measure for Measure in the style of a Mardi Gras parade. Original photo by Joan Marcus.

As its name suggests, the Public Theater was founded to bring theater to the public. It’s original name, The Shakespeare Workshop, likewise suggests its intention to deliver The Bard’s work specifically.

While the well-known, free Shakespeare in the Park series at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park attests to both of these principles, the company’s mobile unit is even more true to the cause, having just delivered their production of Measure for Measure to recreation centers, libraries and a YMCA across the five boroughs.

Returning home to complete the run, a cast comprised entirely of black women puts the story in the context of 1979 New Orleans, with the judge Angelo inflicting the moral letter of the law on a populace well-accustomed to the Mardis Gras atmosphere for which The Big Easy is universally known.

Before the performance even begins, patrons are invited to don plastic beads from one of two jars, depending on whether they align more closely with justice, represented by purple, or mercy, paired with gold. Although some people, like my partner, chose their favorite color regardless of its value, I decided up front that justice and mercy are both important, and elected to pull a string from each of the containers.

Furthering their mission of drawing the audience into the show, we were polled before and after to express our feelings about particular ideals by signaling a thumbs up, thumbs down or somewhere in the middle in response to a short series of questions.

The performance itself was engaging, with a live saxophone accompanied by beats from a boom box, and costumes flashing back to the fab, funky flair of forty years ago.

Injecting a jive vibe into the words of their characters wherever appropriate, the cast wonderfully balances Shakespeare’s dark comedy with a message about forgiving the imperfection of humanity that is as relevant to the cancel culture of today as it was four hundred years ago.


Andrew Andrews attended Measure for Measure at Public Theater Shiva Theater in Manhattan on Wednesday, November 20, 2019 @ 7:00pm to write this review.