It’s a tale of hypocrisy as old as humanity itself: A family-values hardliner gets caught soliciting sex in the most un-Christian way imaginable and begs publicly for forgiveness. In Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, he’s initially sentenced to death as a result before his wife entreats for mercy. In modern Washington, he continues to serve in the Senate, in the House, as a host on Fox News, on the Supreme Court, and even as a candidate for President.
Our culture, one might argue, is now so accustomed to sex scandals that they’re no longer the death knell to political ambitions or public life in the way they once were. But there’s a potency to Measure for Measure, and a sharply modern edge, that makes it one of Shakespeare’s most timeless works. Jonathan Munby’s production, currently playing at Shakespeare Theatre, amps up the sex in a way that feels distinctly old-fashioned, giving it the deceptively harmless air of Victorian pornography or Restoration-era bawdy plays instead of acknowledging it as the ultimate expression of both power and intimacy.
The show begins 20 minutes before it actually starts with a Cabaret-style sequence of German songs and smutty dances in a 1930s Vienna club being performed onstage as the audience take their seats. What’s presumably intended to shock—nipple tassels and men in corsets—isn’t a mite as powerful as what transpires later in the play, although the original songs by Adam Wernick are engaging enough. Instead, it’s an odd opening sequence that doesn’t add much meaning to the rest of the play beyond emphasizing what a den of licentiousness and sink of iniquity Vienna has become.
In mourning the city’s decline, the Duke (Kurt Rhoads) appoints sniveling toady Angelo (Scott Parkinson) as his deputy while he takes a leave of absence, disguising himself as a priest to observe the subsequent action. Angelo, a Ken Cuccinelli killjoy of the highest degree, subsequently sentences a young man, Claudio (Avery Clark), to death for impregnating a young woman (Katie deBuys) whom he intends to marry. Claudio’s sister, Isabella (Miriam Silverman), a novice nun, begs Angelo to spare her brother’s life; he, in a fit of lust, declares he will only do so if she gives him her virginity.
The design elements in the show are fantastically ominous, drawing heavily on the fascism looming over Western Europe in the 1930s, and with vast red and black flags evoking the Norsefire party in V for Vendetta. As locations transform from churches to prisons to nightclubs, actors pull moving scenery on and offstage to a clanking soundtrack that emphasizes the urgency of Claudio’s situation (the sets are by Alexander Dodge). While the costumes are for the most part unobtrusive, designer Linda Cho has fun with the cabaret scene, outfitting strippers in removable nun costumes and men in lederhosen that’s minimalist, to say the least.
Still, the show draws most of its strength from flawless performances, particularly by Parkinson as the inappropriately named Angelo. A volte-face such as his can either explain itself through rank hypocrisy or temporary insanity, and Parkinson seems to opt for the latter, portraying his Angelo as falling under the influence of feverish dreams about the chaste Isabella. He repeatedly grabs his crotch then shakes his hand away with disgust, and in one scene is downright terrifying as he tries to force himself on a screaming Isabella.
The most rational character in the show is ultimately Rhoads’s Duke, a dignified and stately figure who sees the shades of gray between Angelo and Isabella’s dogmatic worldviews. Rhoads is stellar in the role, acting as a calm voice of reason (at least until the final scene). As Isabella, Silverman is positively steely, demanding earnestly that Angelo spare her brother’s life and pleading for her revenge when she’s led to believe he’s been executed.
A terrific supporting cast includes Naomi Jacobson as Mistress Overdone, Chris Genebach as Pompey, deBuys as Juliet, Claudio’s pregnant lover, and Natascia Diaz as Mariana, a pill-popping torch singer inexplicably besotted with Angelo. Elbow (Hugh Nees), is one of Shakespeare’s more tiresome Mr. Malapropists, and the constant interjections of Lucio (Cameron Folmar) in the final act also start to wear, but both actors serve as effective comic relief. Still, some scenes could benefit from a little pruning, particularly inside the prison gates.
Nothing against period productions, but it’s hard not to wonder what insight could be gleaned from a Measure for Measure that tackles contemporary attitudes to sex—by all accounts, as fractured, unrealistic, and extreme as they ever were. A smutty nightclub theme with prostitutes and strippers feels like a cheap attempt to cash in on the currency of sexuality without tackling the thorny problem of why it continues to divide us. Like the posters showing a nun pulling her habit against her groin, the opening cabaret interlude doesn’t seem to have all that much to do with the rest of the show—which itself has a great deal to offer.
Measure for Measure is at Shakespeare Theatre through October 27. Running time is two hours and 45 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets ($40 to $110) are available via Shakespeare Theatre’s website.