The most vivacious moments of the new “Measure for Measure” at the Shakespeare Theatre Company — on the whole, an evening on the dry side — aren’t strictly Shakespearean. They’re Munbian.
As in, derived from the mind of the director, Jonathan Munby, and realized in the music-filled demimonde he devises as a new, eroticized prologue to this tragicomic play about the dangerous ends to which morality can be put in the hands of the wrong leaders.
Munby transfers the buttoned-down Vienna of Shakespeare’s imagination to the shabbier, more libertine Vienna of just before World War II. A 20-minute pre-show greets Lansburgh Theatre playgoers, who take their seats as “Measure” cast members perform skits and songs in German. In a loud echo of “Cabaret,” the entertainment is presided over by an obnoxiously smarmy emcee (Cameron Folmar, the play’s fine, blabbermouth Lucio) and furnished by mournful torch singers and disrobing dancing nuns.
This evocative brew, culminating in the arrival of Vienna’s ruler, Duke Vincentio (Kurt Rhoads) — whose inclinations run to unfortunate disappearances, bad personnel decisions and muscular young men — awakens you to the decadent society of Munby’s vision. Surprisingly, though, the events that unfold over the ensuing 23 / 4 hours do not harness the prologue’s licentious energy in a meaningful way.
It is by no means a failed treatment of one of Shakespeare’s thorniest, and therefore most fascinating, plays. (And in spite of the warnings about content unsuitable for children under 18, it is only very fleetingly explicit.) It’s just one that never fully follows through on the imaginative promise of its opening.
The talented Munby staged Shakespeare Theatre’s splendid foray into the Spanish Golden Age four years ago, a hot-blooded “The Dog in the Manger.” So maybe the hope for something of that beautifully cast, revelatory caliber ratcheted up expectations unrealistically. The memory, too, of what director Aaron Posner achieved at Folger Theatre with a deeply felt yet cerebral take on “Measure” in 2006 colored the belief in what’s theatrically possible with this transitional play, which leaves Shakespeare’s comedies behind and prepares us for the later tragedies and romances.
Still, something is lacking when the emotional transaction that feels most completely inhabited is the one between Mariana, a secondary character suffused here with extraordinary presence and feeling by Natascia Diaz, and Angelo, the uptight sexual hypocrite who is disastrously left in charge in Vienna by the inscrutable duke.
The excellent Scott Parkinson portrays Angelo, and he’s the wormiest, creepiest Angelo you’re likely to encounter. With his pinched mien, slicked-back hair and bookkeeper’s spectacles, he looks like one of those deer-in-the-headlights guys on “To Catch a Predator.” Angelo is, in fact, a predator, who feels free to unbuckle his basest instincts after the duke transfers power to this unfit aide and, in clerical disguise, takes the moral temperature of his city.
The play turns on an outrageous executive decision by Angelo to enforce a widely ignored law against intercourse outside of wedlock. A death sentence is levied on poor Claudio (Avery Clark), who has impregnated his girlfriend, Juliet (Katie deBuys). It is left to his chaste sister, Isabella (Miriam Silverman), a novice in a Vienna convent, to beg Angelo for his life. After loathsome Angelo tries by force to consummate an ugly bargain — Isabella’s virginity for a pardon of Claudio — her horrified rebuke sets in motion the duke’s plot for another sort of unmasking: of Angelo’s crimes.
“Measure for Measure” is a bit of a puzzle, occupying itself with the elusiveness of human motive as much as “Othello” spends time on the opposite, keeping an open tab on the rationales for Iago’s evil. Munby keys in here on the mystery, as it pertains to sexuality. Folmar’s effeminate Lucio, for example, boasts of his relations with women; Diaz’s Mariana professes a depth of longing for Angelo that defies the logical aftereffects of a spurned engagement. And most paradoxically, the duke here asks for Isabella’s hand despite his demonstrable desire for a young man in a nightclub.
Blurriness can be theatrically interesting, but it needs to be expressed in a range of performances that also manage the trick of emotional transparency. This quality is not on consistent display in Munby’s “Measure,” and particularly not in the crucial case of the duke. Rhoads’s stoical countenance comes across as unreadable. And his pairing with Silverman’s Isabella exudes a listless neutrality.
The scenic tone chosen by designer Alexander Dodge — drab, peeling walls and moving sets of prison bars — is in keeping with the dullish, general impression left on this evening. Even if “Measure for Measure” covers a whole landscape of gray areas, it shouldn’t feel this gray.
by William Shakespeare. Directed by Jonathan Munby. Sets, Alexander Dodge; costumes, Linda Cho; lighting, Philip S. Rosenberg; composer, Adam Wernick; sound, Walter Trarbach; choreography, Daniel Pelzig; fight direction, Robb Hunter. With Jack Wetherall, Naomi Jacobson, Chris Genebach, Eric Martin Brown, Katie deBuys, John Lescault, Hugh Nees, Dan Istrate. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Through Oct. 27 at Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. Visit www.shakespearetheatre.org or call 202-547-1122.