Bryant Park Presents Shakespeare is topping off its summer season with The Drilling Company’s production of Measure for Measure. But this version of Shakespeare’s raucous, fun, if slightly problematic comedy has received a twist: a modern-day New Orleans makeover. Vienna in the 1600’s is transplanted to the vibrant world of 2016 Viennaville, Louisiana. Shakespeare’s bawdy humor and biting satire come to life on the Bryant Park steps, just as comfortable touting a string of green, gold, and purple beads as an Elizabethan ruff. Themes like political corruption, morality, and a not-so-subtle undertone of the perils of being a woman in a man’s world translate seamlessly to the modern-day south.
For the charm of the Bryant Park Shakespeare series, look no farther than Bryant Park itself. The audience settles into their seats with the skyscrapers of Midtown at their backs and the impressive backside of the New York Public Library in front. Against this impressive backdrop, aided by little else but the imagination of the audience, Measure for Measure sets its stage. In contrast to its more mainstream Shakespeare in the Park neighbor, there is something open and inclusive about the Bryant Park Upper Terrace. Actors waltz in and out of the audience, and a constant parade of passersby streams behind the players. Their presence is never felt, however. The actors command every inch of the stage.
The Drilling Company’s Measure for Measure is part screwball comedy, part moral conundrum; an exciting romp from start to finish. In this updated version of Shakespeare explained in the useful preface in the playbill, Duke Vincentio (Emmanuel Elpenord) is the first black mayor of the city, only to find his town torn apart by injustice. He decides to take a leave of absence and hands over his office to the sublimely evil, frat-boy-type Angelo (Lukas Raphael). In disguise as a friar, the Duke dives into the underbelly of the city to expose corruption from the outside in. But the makeover goes beyond adding Saints caps and Mardi Gras accessories. The show is woven with folksy Southern music, performed between scenes by overall-clad banjoist Wesley Zurick.
Zurick and the music, occasionally accompanied by actor Jarrod Bates on trumpet, are certainly a highlight of the show. Not to be shown up, however, is Serena E. Miller as Mistress Overdone, a Louisiana lady of the night. Exuding charm in either clunky heels or in an orange jumpsuit, Mistress Overdone’s stage appearances never fail to provoke smiles and laughter. Another stand-out performance is Michael William Bernstein as Lucio, who swaggers on and off the stage to the audience’s absolute delight and reinvents his lines in a hilarious vernacular style that serves to remind just how applicable Shakespeare can be to everyday life. In the hands of both Miller and Bernstein, classic comedic lowlifes are spruced up with modern street smarts, an admirable toughness, and a splash of New Orleans flair.
It’s true that the two-hour production may have benefited from an intermission, though this is more attributable to the uncomfortable Bryant Park lawn chairs than to any fault of the production’s. Elpenord, Raphael, and Ivory Aquino as Isabella lead a solid, multitalented cast in this fresh take on a seldom-performed classic, and laughter abounds from beginning to end. Nestled among the bright lights of Midtown, the Drilling Company’s Measure for Measure is a great way to cap off the dwindling season of outdoor summer fun and free Shakespeare in the Park.