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First Nighter: The Fiascos Do Measure for Measure, The Pearl Does No Exit

03/11/2014 06:29 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2014

Companies here and abroad, far and wide, high and low devote themselves to William Shakespeare. There's nothing new about the dedication. The Shakespeare devotees just keep coming. Often, they just keep coming with some startlingly new -- or so they think -- take on Hamlet. That flogged opus has been deconstructed more times than, as they used to say, Carter has little liver pills.

But of all these Bard hem kissers, few around are as consistently amusing as the still relatively new Fiasco Theater with its six members, each eager to double and triple in roles. Always billed alphabetically, they're Jessie Austrian, Noah Brody (also co-director), Paul L. Coffey, Andy Grotelueschen, Ben Steinfeld (the other co-director) and Emily Young.

By "amusing." I mean that's the result of their boundless ingenuity, fearlessness playfulness, and unmistakable delight in the timeless works. Right now at the New Victory, they're putting all the above into play with Measure for Measure, which for timelessness may be slightly less timeless than others of the works.

This is the one, often termed "a problem play," in which chaste Isabella (Young) refuses to sacrifice her virginity to temporary Vienna potentate Angelo (Coffey) in order to spare the life of brother Claudio (Brody), condemned to death over a fairly innocent misdemeanor. While flamboyant figures like the prevaricating Lucio (Steinfeld) and pure figures like Mariana (Austrian) are on hand to hurt or help the situation, the actual Duke Vincentio (Grotelueschen) masquerades as a friar to watch his people and provide solutions to their quandaries.

The Fiasco troupe likes to keep things minimal, and so this time out keep pretty much to set designer Derek McLane's six varied door frames. Generally, they change costumes in almost plain view behind the doors, although sometimes they do something rapid on stage -- as when Young quickly switches from the steadfast yet demure Isabella to the overdone brothel operator Mistress Overdone.

Speaking of Young's 180-degree change in character type, there's an intriguing effect of the doubling. Something subliminal happens, for instance, when Brody alternates between the upright Claudio and the ham-sized-biceps, lower-class Pompey.

It's an unexpected plus. This is Shakespeare, who includes representatives of every temperament and from every society stratum in his dramas, comedies and histories. The suggestion here when an actor takes on opposites is that psychologically we all contain two or even more people--we're all different sides of the same person.

As they go about their Bard biz, the Fiascos, who banded together in the Brown University/Trinity Rep M. F. A. Program, give the impression that they've put their energies into the concepts they favor for each of their undertakings as well as into the intricacies of staging rather than into the most extensive vocal training available. Nevertheless, every line they speak is lucid and infused with their enthusiasm.

Moreover, they exhibit a comic flair that often even the most acclaimed outfits can't boast. Maybe the best example in this Measure for Measure is Steinfeld's Lucio badmouthing the Duke to the Duke in his friar guise, never realizing the deep grave he's potentially digging for himself. Steinfeld's show of bravado is expert.

The Fiasco Theater abilities are a gift, and there they are for the unwrapping.

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Jean Paul Sartre wrote No Exit (Huis Clos) during the German Occupation of Paris, although nowhere in the tense work is there any explicit reference to World War II. Implicitly, however, what transpires in the May, 1944 item -- the recently deceased cowardly Cradeau, vengeful lesbian Inez and beautiful but dim Estelle are locked in together in order to learn that "hell is other people" -- has a great deal to do with what was raging in a country where superficially much seemed unchanged.

The unseen but deeply felt existential angst is palpable throughout, as these three who've been cruelly matched because they are so mismatched rile one another non-stop. It's almost as if the dramatist-philosopher set out to compose a dystopian version of Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde.

The play -- first produced on Broadway for 31 performances in 1946, directed by John Huston and starring Claude Rains, Ruth Ford and Annabella, and not seen there since -- eventually caught on and in time received innumerable productions. For a while it seemed that that build resulted in the plays attaining notice as a fascinating new take on the afterlife and as Sartre's most widely accessible piece.

(The brief initial run was undoubtedly due to few theatergoers wishing to be reminded of such harrowing events as the post-war boom was only just getting underway.)

In recent decades, however, fewer No Exit productions have appeared. This makes the Pearl Theater Company revival, in Paul Bowles's favored translation, welcome -- and even more welcome for being so crisply and thoroughly realized.

Under Linda Ames Key's penetrating direction, Bradford Cover as Cradeau, Jolly Abrahams as Inez and Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris go at each other hammer and tongs, all acting skills honed. "Hammer and tongs" is the cliché phrase, of course, but they do go at each other literally with a letter opener. The room is furnished with one despite there being no mail delivery, as is explained by the valet (played with sly smiles by Pete McElligott).

As for the room in which the three -- siding two against one, siding two against a different one, siding each against the other two -- are incarcerated, it's a stunner. Harry Feiner thought it up, somewhat in accordance with Sartre's stage direction that calls for a Second Empire-like drawing room with a large bronze sculpture on the mantelpiece.

Feiner's drawing room idea here is to place three solid-color divans about and a tall standing sculpture that Donald Judd might have concocted in a hurry. The inspirations here are the high walls. At first, it looks as if they're papered with an abstract pattern, but as the one-act tragicomedy progresses and Ann Wrightson lights them from behind, mountains of debris are revealed, hemming in the three dead combatants that much more claustrophobically.

Feiner has crafted what may be the best set the Pearl has ever seen. It's only fitting, since this is without question one of the finest productions the company has ever offered.