Measure for Measure, Shakespeare's serious-minded, sexually frank comedy about moral hypocrisy and government corruption, doesn't usually qualify as a knee-slapper, but Simon Godwin comes pretty close to making it one in his new production now running at Theatre for a New Audience's Polonsky Shakespeare Center. Under his direction, the play feels fresh, timely, and full of contemporary relevance.
Godwin and set designer Paul Wills have the audience take an (optional) immersive walk through a "brothel" before entering the theater. "Hi, papi," purrs the madam, Mistress Overdone (January LaVoy), at the entrance to a red-lit hallway lined with sex toys. To the left, a group of actors perform a slightly racy scene (it's pretty tame), but the whole experience sets a festive and somewhat foreboding tone. There's more fun to be had in the theater; this Measure takes place on top of an enormous banquet table, complete with candelabras, at which a select number of audience members sit.
The dining-hall setting is apropos for this theatrical buffet. A three-piece band plays as the cast dances onstage, but things quickly sober up with the entrance of the duke (Jonathan Cake). He has decided to stop trying to enforce the city's morality laws because of his opioid problem (the duke shoots up in the opening scene), so he enters a rehab of sorts with some local monks. Seeing the city in a state of anomie, the duke turns his authority over to a puritanical, obsessive-compulsive tyrant named Angelo (an icy Thomas Jay Ryan), who institutes strict prohibitions on illicit sexual behavior — namely, no hanky-panky outside of marriage.
That becomes a legal problem for unwed couple Claudio and Juliet (Leland Fowler and Sam Morales), who have a child on the way. For getting Juliet pregnant, Claudio is arrested, jailed, and sentenced to death. His sister, Isabella (a splendid Cara Ricketts), begs for her brother's life, but the hypocritical tyrant Angelo will not stay the execution unless Isabella agrees to a night of carnality with him. A chaste nun-in-training, Isabella adamantly refuses. The duke, however, has been skulking around the city incognito in a monk's cloak. When he gets wind of Angelo's plan, he sets his own trap to ensnare the dishonest man in whom he placed so much trust.
The story is pretty heavy for a comedy, and that's why Measure is sometimes referred to instead as a "problem play" — because it's a mélange of funny and dire. Simon and his cast, however, keep things light every chance they get. Most of the laughs come from the minor characters, an array of prostitutes, criminals, and bumbling constables with names like Abhorson (Kenneth De Abrew) and Elbow (Zachary Fine). The comedic highlight of the show is Fine, whose outlandish portrayals of four different characters have the audience in stitches (he did the same in a recent production of Vanity Fair). The delightful Haynes Thigpen's Lucio gets big laughs while breaking up the duke's lengthy speech in the second half. Oberon K.A. Adjepong as the Provost and Christopher Michael McFarland as Pompey also turn in great performances.
Along with the modern dress (costumes also by Wills), the band's upbeat rock numbers make the action feel current and familiar along with Merritt Janson, who, during intermission, steps up to sing lead vocal for a few numbers before taking on her role as Mariana in the show's second half. Godwin and Wills drive home the idea that Measure for Measure really should feel familiar, dealing as it does with reckless abuses of power. Without pointing fingers, the actors emphasize lines that have political resonance. "It is excellent to have a giant's strength," Isabella emphatically says to Angelo, "but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant" — sage counsel for all in government, especially now.
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