I have to confess, I've never really liked Superman. I find DC Comics' flagship enterprise to be, ultimately, boring. Some of you will probably feel (and this is correct) that I just haven't read enough of the series, or found the proper arcs. But my main problem is that Superman, himself, seems too perfect: he's profoundly moral, a pure do-gooder, and utterly invincible.
Let's be realistic: the whole Kryptonite thing is just a MacGuffin: he's always able to overcome his "one weakness," and even when he "dies," he'll come back sooner or later. Lex Luthor doesn't stand a chance against him. Another major problem I have with Superman comes from this huge power. I'm suspicious of any monolithic power structures, especially when they are personified in a single figure (hello, dictatorship!), even if that single figure professes a paternalistic interest in the good of all.
The one time I've been even slightly interested in Superman was near the end of Kill Bill (Part II), when Bill himself, played by the late, great (and kind of kinky, apparently) David "Caine" Carradine, expounded on the comic. What Bill –- here, clearly speaking for Quentin Tarantino -– finds interesting about Superman is the hero's implicit critique of humanity. Superman is the real guy: it's Clark Kent that's the costume. And Clark Kent is foolish, fearful, indecisive, and a silly glasses-wearing intellectual. Kind of like me. And that's how Superman sees humanity.
Personally, I'm much more interested in darker comics that portray frayed heroes who struggle to avoid being overwhelmed by the evil that they themselves fight. Until its recent bizarre space-alien arcs, I'd gotten a kick out of Mark Waid's Irredeemable because it asks the question we all wanted to know about Superman: what the hell would we do if he went crazy, or decided to kill us all? This is the real problem with any immense power, whether it be an authoritarian government or spandex-wearing alien with a perfect jawline.
Thus, I was more than dismayed with the Public Theater's current production of Measure for Measure at the Delacorte Theater in New York's Central Park, directed by David Esbjornson. Measure for Measure is usually described as a "problem play" or "problem comedy" because it doesn't fit neatly into any specific genre. Like Shakespeare's other comedies, no major characters die and the play ends with a bunch of marriages. However, it contains some of the vilest and most troubling scenes in all of Shakespeare's plays. A nun is nearly raped onstage. A pimp is forced to become an executioner, and describes all of his former clients that he now must kill. And these are only two of many offenses shown onstage.
Most disgusting, however, is the play's depiction of power. The Duke of Vienna (who is called "Vincentio" in the cast list, but never actually named in the text), seeing his state rife with prostitution and corruption, leaves Vienna in the care of his deputy Angelo, an apparently unquestionably honest official. Presumably, Angelo will clean up the city, and in fact Angelo begins doing so. But soon, the deputy becomes apparently the most corrupt figure of all, demanding that the nun Isabella sleep with him in exchange for her brother Claudio's life. Even when Angelo believes she has done so (in fact, he was tricked into sleeping with his former fiancée), he still orders the execution of Claudio.
Claudio is only saved by the Duke himself, who has in fact been in disguise as a friar. The disguised Duke is himself as bad as Angelo: at one point, he essentially serves as Angelo's pimp; at another, he psychologically tortures Isabella by letting her think Claudio is actually dead. Once the Duke reveals himself, nearly everyone is pardoned and then the Duke himself asks for Isabella's hand in marriage. The play reveals the inexorable corrupting force of authoritarian power. Isabella has learned that, despite whatever she may want, she ultimately has no choice in her fate.
Measure for Measure is one of my favorite Shakespearean plays precisely because of its troubles with genre. The rancid and corrupt Vienna it depicts is, in my opinion, one of Shakespeare's most honest visions of human society. The title is ironic because ultimately the Duke's moralistic phrases ring false: there is no fair measure for measure. In the end, Angelo gets off scot-free, and Isabella is faced with the attentions of yet another ruler. In this respect, Measure for Measure reminds me of some of my favorite comics: gritty works like Watchmen, 100 Bullets, DMZ, and The Boys.
Esbjornson's production of Measure for Measure reminded me more of Superman than of any of these darker comics. The director did make some halfhearted attempts to convey the desperate situation in Shakespeare's Vienna. The play opened with demons (one wearing the frightening bunny mask from Donnie Darko) stalking the streets of the city: this was the Duke's nightmare. The show ended with the totally unearned melody of the Rolling Stones' Sympathy for the Devil – a song that would have been entirely appropriate for a more seamy production. But for the most part, the problems inherent in the text were glossed over in order to produce a "feel-good evening at the theatre." I never could have imagined a production of Measure for Measure would evoke that phrase.
Much of the problem came from Lorenzo Pisoni's portrayal of the Duke. As far as I could tell, Pisoni was actually attempting to play the Duke as if he were Superman. I'm not kidding. His main disguise as the Friar involved a pair of glasses. As the Duke, he wore a cape (albeit a black one). But beyond the basic issues of costuming, Pisoni portrayed the Duke as if he were a pure do-gooder, a silly Clark Kent who had fallen in love with his personal Lois Lane (who happened to be a nun). Instead of being disgusting, he was kind of cute. This choice ultimately made the production not an examination of the corruption inherent in society, but a lesson in the Kumbayas that can be provided by a well-meaning dictator.
Esbjornson's Measure for Measure wasn't without its effective moments: John Cullum was excellent as Escalus, the one upstanding official, and Carson Elrod and Lucas Caleb Rooney stole every scene they were in as Pompey and Barnardine, two particularly depraved – yet strikingly honest – lords of misrule. Danai Gurira was extremely moving as the constantly wronged Isabella, except that she never had a sufficient scene partner, whether Pisoni as the Duke or Michael Hayden as the equally boring Angelo. Ultimately, Esbjornson's failure to tackle the problematic nature of Shakespeare's text, coupled with Pisoni's wooden man-of-steel performance, served as this production's Kryptonite.
The Public Theater's free production of Measure for Measure is at the Delacorte Theater in New York's Central Park through July 30. Information on tickets can be found here. Top photo by Joan Marcus via Harry Forbes.