One of Shakespeare’s so-called problem plays, “Measure for Measure” is a tale of piety, lust, hypocrisy and politics. And, indeed, it is famously problematic to unpack — in some ways, perversely so.
The elements of Elizabethan comedy, romance and near-tragedy are oddly balanced and hard to navigate in this late-period “dramedy” from the Bard. Consequently, performances of it are relatively infrequent. (The current production by Seattle Shakespeare Company is the troupe’s first in 12 years.)
There’s good reason to tackle it though. “Measure for Measure” feels prescient in its sexual candor, and its pondering of how religion and personal morality impact governing — a current American and global concern.
Desdemona Chiang’s modern-dress staging at Center Theatre laudably prizes and achieves a clarity of action and diction, which is no small matter. But it doesn’t deeply plumb the complexities of the text.
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Cindy Im is a poised, confident Isabella, the novitiate who learns that her brother Claudio (Moses Yim) has been condemned to death for impregnating his girlfriend. The harsh sentence has been levied not by the lenient Vincentio, Duke of Vienna (a hearty David Anthony Lewis), but by his sanctimonious deputy Angelo (Bradford Farwell), who was left in charge of the city when the Duke went off on retreat.
But here’s the first twist: the Duke doesn’t leave town. Rather, he disguises himself as a lurking monk to spy on Vienna, and Angelo’s rule — and, eventually, to undo the damage wrought in his absence.
That’s the serious branch of the story. But it is counterweighted with titillating glimpses of the Viennese demimonde (prostitutes, ne’er-do-wells and, in this telling, erotic dancers), and with the ribald comedy of bawds, braggarts and dolts.
Vienna’s decadence, which the Duke acknowledges but can’t control, is played mainly for laughs, which is all to the best given the clowning prowess of Tim Gouran, as the scruffy hustler Lucio and Scott Ward Abernethy’s preening, tart-tongued pimp Pompey.
These very amusing wags are emblems of the degradation that Farwell’s grim ascetic Angelo decides to yank out by the roots, to the dismay of the Duke’s sage adviser Escalus (an effectively dignified Sylvester F. Kamara).
But in another twist that can defy the credibility of Elizabethan theatrical conventions even more than usual, Angelo is so turned on when Isabella pleads for her brother’s pardon that he holds her hostage to his libido. Physically and morally, she defends her chastity with slaps, rage and rock-solid conviction.
Im conveys such principled strength that one can certainly appreciate Isabella’s neo-feminist unwillingness to sacrifice herself to male authority. However, that rectitude is monochromatic here (her brother be damned), while the text allows for some internal ambivalence.
The sexualized aura of this Sin City is underplayed generally. Angelo’s desires are cogently spoken by Farwell, but his sudden case of ardor isn’t persuasive. Nor are there loaded hints of the growing closeness between the disguised Duke and Isabella.
On the other side of the street, it takes more than glimpses of go-go dancers and scantily clad trollops to evoke a vice pool where everything is for sale. (The characters who come closest are Abernethy’s viperish Pompey, and talented Anna Helene Lewis, as a child of tarnished innocence.)
Still, Chiang has crafted a “Measure for Measure” that is a clear introduction to a fascinating play. Because there’s more to explore here, about the contradictory values of freedom and order in a society, let’s hope we don’t wait another dozen years before the play returns to us again.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org