Director Jonathan Munby has set his fabulous new staging of Measure for Measure in a fanciful 1930s, pre-war Vienna. But it could as well be taking place in any society where the prevailing moral barometer has found some extra wiggle room.
Once again, the cultural treasure that is DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company has made the Bard a relevant voice in our current affairs. And because Shakespeare wrote with the wisdom of the ages, you can enjoy his take on the world whether you are liberal or conservative. That alone earns this production a special seat at our divided national table.
At the Lansburgh Theatre, a context is established before the play begins, with a 20-minute cabaret performance inside a rowdy, libertine nightclub. Here we are treated to an eyeful of what a beleaguered administration in Vienna’s capital has decided to put a lid on.
A governor acting in the absence of the Duke deputizes an upright (not to mention uptight) mid-level bureaucrat named Angelo to target the city’s tattered morals.
For the role of Angelo, director Munby has cast reedy Scott Parkinson, who gives us a three-dimensioned view of an ill-at-ease censor, patterned not on some fascist monster but more reminiscent of Will Hayes, enforcer of the infamous 1930s Hollywood production code.
Drunk with his new power, Angelo over-reaches and condemns to death Claudio, a young man whose only crime seems to have been impregnating his girlfriend. The condemned man’s sister, a fair nun-in-training named Isabella, comes to Angelo to beg for her brother’s life, but Angelo is so excited by this vision of uncorrupted innocence that he concludes he must have it for himself.
This part of Shakespeare’s play — with its string of victims held in the clutches of a self-righteous religious hypocrite — seems like just another cheap shot aimed at conservative pieties. But by the time Angelo faces his comeuppance at play’s end, the Bard has more than restored the moral balance and reminded social reformers about the limits of government power and the greater good instilled by faith and virtue.
The play is told within a wonderfully fluid set, designed by Alexander Dodge to morph from nightclub to bureaucratic sanctum to sterile cell blocks with the graceful precision of a corps de ballet. Period costumes by Linda Cho provide plenty of foreground color, and cast a sense of playful invention upon all social strata.
All the engrossing, if lurid, plot points are given admirable clarity by the top-notch performances of the STC cast, which this time out even performs vintage cabaret song-and-dance like pros. (The theater is warning parents of young children about certain mature elements in this production.
Cameron Folmar gets the evening’s richest laughs as Lucio, a prancing dandy of an opportunist and tireless self-promoter. Also validating the play’s comedy ticket are Chris Genebach as an amoral pimp with a gift for word-play, and Hugh Nees as a myopic gnome of a constable named Elbow.
Kurt Rhoads brings a sober authority to Vincentio, the stalwart Duke who dons a secret identity to launch his own investigation of corruption (and may have a secret motivation for doing so, in Munby’s interpretation). Miriam Silverman is passionate and wins audience sympathy to the side of Isabella, who must struggle to retain her innocence in more ways than one.
In startlingly symbolic fashion, the sad and lonely figure of Natascia Diaz hovers over this staging. As Mariana, the jilted fiancee who holds the key to understanding Angelo’s twisted psyche, the multi-talented Diaz first appears as a melancholy torch singer in the cabaret sequence, then wanders like a veiled ghost through subsequent scenes before playing a decisive role in the final revelations.
With Measure for Measure, the Shakespeare Theatre Company is opening its 2013-14 season with a sure-footed crowd-pleaser. It raises the bar again on classical theater in our region.
Running Time: Approximately three hours, with a 15-minute intermission and a 20-minute pre-show cabaret.
Measure for Measure plays through October 27, 2013 at Shakespeare Theatre Company at the Lansburgh Theatre — 450 7th Street, NW, in Washington, D.C. For ticket, call the box office at (202) 547-1122, or purchase them online.