Measure for Measure (1604) has long been considered one of Shakespeare’s problem plays. Partly it’s because of corruptions in the printing, but also, as a purported “comedy,” it’s never fully satisfying. In the right director’s hands, though, it can be deeply intriguing and memorable.
Simon Godwin’s production at Theater for a New Audience takes liberties, and many are smart. (The problem plays usually benefit from a bit of roughing up, although here the themes of lust and moral hypocrisy are still contemporary.) At the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, the audience is invited to enter through Mistress Overdone’s labyrinthine brothel. Lighted in red by Matthew Richards, it features sexy photographs adorned with frilly panties, displays of sex toys, and a glass-walled room where three actors in bondage gear show off their writhing skills.
The play, set in Vienna, finds Duke Vincentio (Jonathan Cake), the ruler, taking a mysterious leave of absence and leaving his deputy Angelo (Thomas Jay Ryan) in charge. The Duke, however, disguises himself and hangs around town to observe Angelo enforce the morality laws that have lost their teeth under his rule: “the baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart goes all decorum,” acknowledges the Duke. When Claudio (Leland Fowler), is condemned to death for impregnating a woman out of wedlock, his sister, Isabella (Cara Ricketts), a novice nun, begs Angelo to spare him. The publicly upright but secretly corrupt Angelo demands her virginity in exchange.
Once the play properly begins, Godwin has a remarkable surprise. The Duke’s whole Machiavellian scheme to restore order rarely makes sense, but a disheveled Cake comes out, injects himself with drugs, and wraps himself in a long white runner on the floor. During the whole first scene Cake’s Duke moves jerkily. As he relates his plan, the simple question “What think you of it?” is infused with jitters. This drug-ravaged Duke is killing two birds with one stone: he can detoxify while Angelo restores the force of law. It's a plausible notion.
Still, the Duke’s choice of Angelo is harder to swallow. Angelo’s probity is undermined by later references to his checkered background, especially toward Mariana, a woman to whom he was betrothed until he broke it off after she lost her dowry: “he, a marble to her tears, is washed with them, but relents not,” the Duke tells Isabella. Could the drug-addled ruler have set up this trap for Ryan’s peremptory hypocrite? It’s this sort of inconsistency that makes Measure so tricky to present.
A strong cast boosts Godwin’s production. Cake is magisterial in speech and bearing, even in the humble character of a monk, and he finds comedy where it’s not expected. Ricketts is a well-spoken Isabella, but her zealotry in protecting her virginity—“more than my brother is our chastity” and “th’impression of keen whips I’d wear as rubies,” she says—make her a chilly heroine.
Godwin seems to understand the chastity debate has lost relevance. When Angelo, fending off Isabella’s threat to expose him, grabs her and says, “My false o’erweighs your true,” the uplighting is that of old-time melodrama. Some problems in Measure can’t be made fresh.
In a large cast, January LaVoy excels as the counselor Escala. Translated from a wise old man to a power-suited woman, LaVoy presents a tough yet merciful figure, and she speaks the language with great fluency, as do Fowler and Merritt Janson’s Mariana. The last has become a lead singer in a band that plays at The Moated Grange—the glancing reference in the text is now a bluegrass club.
The production’s comedy is less successful. Zachary Fine’s constable Elbow dishes out labored malapropisms with diminishing returns in an extended courtroom scene; later, though, Fine is superlative as the drunken prisoner Barnardine. Paul Wills’ sets are sleazy and gaudy, as are his costumes for the lowlifes. The exposure of the disguised Duke, though, is particularly clumsy, as Lucio (a braggart whose irritating nature is unmitigated by Haynes Thigpen) has to pull away the monk’s entire robe rather than just a cowl.
Most directors end Measure ambiguously. The Duke, whose schemes make the innocent suffer—Isabella thinks Claudio was executed, but he is alive—and who has commanded marriages so that the fallen woman Mariana is made decent, and so that Claudio’s pregnant girlfriend won’t have a bastard, no longer bring smiles.
Yet Godwin goes all out for a more classic ending when the Duke proposes to Isabella, avoiding the ambiguity that many directors introduce and that, on balance, seems fitting for this play. It’s a measure of the production’s virtues that the resolution stretches credibility less than usual.
TFANA’s Measure for Measure plays through July 16 at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center (262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday (but a July 3 performance replaces the one on Tuesday, July 4); matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and information, call OvationTix at 866-811-4111 or visit tfana.org.