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Men behaving badly — hmm, familiar? — in 'Measure'

Men behaving badly. More to the point, male politicians who can't keep their, er, codpieces zipped — and think they can get away with it.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Men behaving badly. More to the point, male politicians who can't keep their, er, codpieces zipped — and think they can get away with it.

Where have we heard THAT lately?

The folks at the Public Theater couldn't have anticipated the rash of naughty-politician stories that would crop up this past spring when they chose "Measure for Measure" for their Shakespeare in the Park season, and they may be thanking their lucky stars for the propitious timing.

But happily, there's a lot more to recommend the entertaining production of "Measure" that opened Thursday than its modern-day parallels. Director David Esbjornson ("Driving Miss Daisy") has taken one of the bard's trickier plays and created a well-paced, visually arresting evening, one that may well have you sitting ramrod straight in anticipation as the action hurtles to its all-loose-ends-tied conclusion.

You may have seen "Measure" before, but chances are you haven't seen one that begins with actual devils crawling across the stage and makes use of the Rolling Stones. But the devil imagery is apt — "Measure" is about moral hypocrisy and corruption but also about evil, and a world that believes in it.

It's also about sex — and not just sexual coercion. The Vienna where "Measure" is set is full of brothels, where disease runs rampant. Thankfully, Esbjornson and costume designer Elizabeth Hope Clancy haven't chosen the modern-dress option here — that would be much less interesting than the huge period skirts their harlots wear, with big bustles, but sometimes also wide open in the front. (Check out, too, the nifty executioner's garb.)

Interesting visuals aside, "Measure" has been a tough play for modern audiences to absorb, and not just because it's one of Shakespeare's "problem plays" — classified as comedies but so dark that it's problematic to call them so. (It's playing in repertory with "All's Well that End's Well," making for a truly problematic duo.)

But it's not merely classification that's tricky. In "Measure," the women are mistreated, to say the least, by the men in their lives. But their reward is marriage, in one case to the worst fiend of all.

Is Shakespeare saying that the best a woman can hope for is marriage, even to a cad? Esbjornson doesn't ignore this problem — he seems to face it directly in the evening's final image, a wordless but significant expression on one character's face.

As we begin, the Duke is so tortured by the chaos that's befallen his city that he leaves — or so it seems — appointing Angelo as his deputy. Angelo rules with an iron fist. He condemns the young Claudio to death for impregnating his fiancee, with whom he's essentially married but for the paperwork.

From jail, Claudio calls on his sister Isabella, who's about to become a nun, for help. The devout Isabella appeals eloquently to Angelo, but he won't yield — until, overcome by lust, he proposes a dastardly trade: Isabella's virginity for her brother's life.

Their confrontation is the most gripping scene of the play. And when she refuses and promises to expose him for the hypocrite he is, his chilling response evokes an audible gasp in the audience: "Who will believe thee?"

Yet modern readers sometimes have trouble with Isabella's refusal — can chastity really be more important than a brother's life? Isabella is played with such a steely intensity by Danai Gurira, and such a blazing sense of pride and faith, that we can at least begin to understand.

Watching all this is the duke, who never really left at all — he merely disguised himself as a friar. Undercover, he arranges the play's famous "bed trick" — Isabella will pretend to submit to Angelo, but actually it will be Mariana, the woman Angelo was supposed to marry but abandoned. A win-win, right?

Except this is Shakespeare. And remember how a different friar's plan worked out in "Romeo and Juliet"?

Esbjornson has made his duke (Lorenzo Pisoni) not a mature ruler, as one imagines from the text, but a young, virile yet emotionally uncertain young man. It's an interesting if slightly jarring choice.

The appealing Andre Holland is a rather puppy-like Claudio. Michael Hayden is an unshowy, tightly wound Angelo, a man whose confidence unravels as he becomes unhinged by the uncontrollable lust that leads to his swift downfall (apparently they didn't have sex-addiction rehab back then.)

The veteran actors John Cullum and Dakin Matthews are welcome, steady presences as the lord Escalus and the Provost. Annie Parisse brings a quiet nobility to Mariana, and Tonya Pinkins is amusing in the all-too-small role of Mistress Overdone, the brothel madam, as is David Manis as the hapless constable Elbow.

In many Shakespeare productions, we endure the "comedy" bits a little impatiently. Here, though, the comedy is often truly amusing, thanks to the physical performances of Reg Rogers as a truly loopy Lucio and Carson Elrod as Pompey.

Looking punkish with a red streak in his hair, Elrod's Pompey — pimp, bartender and executioner all in one — travels through the audience at one point and addresses theatergoers personally. They don't always understand what he's saying, but they laugh.

Elsewhere in Shakespeare, all may be well that ends well. In "Measure," though, a series of hastily arranged marriages imply justice, but don't all seem headed for bliss.

And what of Isabella, to whom the duke offers his own hand? She doesn't get to answer. Some take that as an obvious yes. But here? Take a look at Isabella's face as the evening ends, and judge for yourself.