If Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” is, in part, a meditation on death and transfiguration, Pig Iron Theater Co.’s riff on that famously unfunny comedy takes these subjects literally. Set in a morgue — with harsh fluorescent lighting and cruelly white walls — “Isabella” features a mortician who manipulates five corpses into the play’s central roles. This odd premise is oddly both entertaining and moving.
The obvious approach to the Shakespeare work is to spice it up with Relevancy; it is, after all, a play about hypocrisy in high places and the misuses of power, about a world where government has failed its citizens both morally and legally. But far be it for Philadelphia’s experimental Pig Iron troupe to choose the obvious. Having been invited by New York’s Public Theater to explore Shakespeare, the company was working against its usual methods: The script already existed. So instead of building a new show, they deconstructed the one already in hand.
Focusing on mortality (“To lie in cold obstruction and to rot”), Pig Iron’s show is about flesh; thus the actors perform the entire show naked, with makeup providing lividity and autopsy stitches. Just by appearing onstage, the cast demonstrates how different bodies are and how little all the cosmetic issues matter: old or young, fat or thin, muscled or flabby, hairy or smooth — it’s all just flesh, and it’s all on the way to the morgue.
“Isabella” has only a couple of lines that are not Shakespeare’s, but the delivery is anything but classical. When the Mortician (Charles Conwell), first props up the corpses, flipping them over on their gurneys, he murmurs their lines to them, which they then repeat in a manner that can only be called lifeless — barely moving their lips, barely projecting their voices. But soon they revive to some extent and begin to stagger around, bumping into walls, eventually humming “Greensleeves” while performing a grotesque minuet and, finally, making the dialogue their own. Which is not to say it’s always intelligible.
Eventually, the Mortician discards his surgical blues to stand naked (the Duke revealed) and take his place in the play within the play, literalizing the notion that clothes are merely costumes to hide flesh. The Mortician is the playwright’s surrogate, creating characters, bringing them to life, supplying them with words. He is also his own creation, a character in his own drama, borrowing the high-stakes grandeur of the Shakespearean world before he returns to his meager life, eating cold spaghetti out of a Tupperware container.
When Angelo (Dito van Reigersberg) asks Isabella (Birgit Huppuch) to “lay down the treasures of your body” to save her brother’s life, the corpse totters backwards, stunned by the request as we are stunned by the reminder that this corpse once was a body that had treasures.
Never was nudity so nonerotic as this highly disciplined, superbly choreographed troupe has made it.