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A 'Measure' Of Greatness At the Folger
Aaron Posner's Elegant Solution to 'Problem Play'

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Rarely are the lust-driven crimes and punishments of "Measure for Measure" catalogued as deliciously as in Aaron Posner's captivating production for Folger Theatre. Out of Shakespeare's thorny tale the director fashions a taut, acidly funny, starkly moving play about public pieties and private appetites.

Posner's sleek version of this Shakespearean "problem play" -- forever poised between comedy and tragedy -- is easily one of Folger's most riveting offerings in recent years, a production that represents top-drawer work by a maturing theater artist. With masterly control of techniques borrowed from Hollywood, Bertolt Brecht and even Broadway's "Avenue Q," Posner unfolds a carefully honed vision that does justice to the play's ambiguous characters and wondrous poetry. Without question, the production is a watershed of the season.

It's also of a caliber that might argue an audience out of any reservations it could harbor about the play's greatness. "Measure for Measure" (1604) has been called Shakespeare's farewell to comedy -- what came after, it's believed, were the tragedies and the late-career romances -- and Posner's work here honors the play's transitional role. He's blended the humorous and serious elements into a seamless whole, a charged portrait of a smoldering Vienna wrestling with the tense relationship between community tolerance and legislated morality, with the question of how a society's values can be hijacked and twisted by high-minded hypocrites.

Posner's fine directorial hand is evident in a cascade of powerful moments -- as searing, for instance, as the condemned Claudio's bleak meditation on death, recited marvelously by a rising young Washington actor, Mark J. Sullivan. It is equally apparent in the more whimsical incidents, such as the one in which the detestably predatory Angelo (Ian Merrill Peakes) fantasizes himself in a brief -- and unscripted -- embrace with the virginal religious postulant, Isabella (Karen Peakes).

All through these streamlined proceedings, Posner is aided by a cast of sterling actors who seem to know at all times exactly of what they speak, and refreshingly allow us to grasp it at all times, too. David Emerson Toney's loose-tongued Lucio, David Marks's greasy Pompey and Michele Osherow's doleful Mariana all merit singling out.

As the Machiavellian duke who seeks -- for reasons never made entirely clear -- to rattle the citizenry by naming in his absence the vile Angelo as duke pro tem, Mark Zeisler creates a consummately imperious portrait of nobility. Just as impressive is Peakes's sour-faced Angelo, a bureaucrat whom you wouldn't trust with the keys to your car, let alone the city.

Only Karen Peakes's one-dimensional Isabella rears up a bit short. "Measure for Measure" always has room for a high-strung, stubborn Isabella of intense flavoring. She needs a seductive side as well as a pious one, to explain why the powerful men of the piece go mad for a woman in a habit. Peakes's portrayal, alas, never suggests a taste for anything more exotic than vanilla.

In Posner's scheme, however, the play's the thing far more than any player. As in Mary Zimmerman's whimsical "Pericles" at the Shakespeare Theatre last season, and Douglas C. Wager's magic carpet of a "Comedy of Errors" at the Shakespeare last fall, Posner's success here lies in an ability to ground the play in an accessible concept while not anchoring it too oppressively in a specific time and place. These directors content themselves -- and us -- with more ethereal landscapes. Zimmerman painted on a dreamlike canvas; Wager applied the veneer of enchanting, screwball comedy. And Posner opts for a Brechtian varnish.

The odd machinations in "Measure for Measure" -- the literary critic Harold Bloom, a big fan of the play, nevertheless once labeled it "rancid" -- lend themselves to the credulous province of fable. The play's linchpin is the fate of Isabella's brother Claudio, sentenced to death by Angelo, who is intent on invoking a law that libertine Vienna has long ignored, one that sends to the gallows those who fornicate out of wedlock. Claudio's visibly pregnant fiancee, Juliet (a stirring Marybeth Fritzky), is all the evidence needed by the corrupt Angelo, who is ready to lift the order -- but only if chaste Isabella will be his concubine.

Isabella's categorical rejection of Claudio's pleas for help -- "O dishonest wretch! Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice?" -- seems almost comically self-centered. Angelo, meanwhile, a plain-spoken sexual extortionist, applies an eternal law of raw power in explaining Isabella's predicament to her. "My false," he says, "o'erweighs your true."

The play, in fact, speaks vibrantly to our time about the acrid sanctimony of those who try to sell us all their own book of virtue, while privately consulting a more craven manual.

Unlike drearier stagings of "Measure for Measure," Posner's is never talky; a goodly portion -- and even some characters -- have been cut. And music contributes meaningfully to the play's dark tones: Damien Rice's impassioned "Cold Water," for example, in a jail scene.

As if to underline a parable-like quality in the production, fragments of Shakespeare's verse and quotations from Scripture are projected onto a rectangular screen above Daniel Conway's elegant, spartan set. The floor looks as if it has been lacquered; the twin columns on Folger's stage are sheathed in fluted translucent panels. The set's arresting focal point is a chamber, also enclosed in translucent walls. Bathed in scarlet light, the room is a kind of monument to the paranoia Angelo foments, a place for secrets and spies.

The production's more fanciful qualities are enhanced by an intermingling of actors in vaguely period dress with characters played, "Avenue Q"-style, by puppets. Thanks to the doll-like creations of Aaron Cromie, low characters such as Mistress Overdone, a madam; Elbow, a constable; and Barnadine, an inmate who simply refuses to be executed, are clever hand-held figures, excellently voiced and manipulated by Todd Scofield. (Tony Nam is the other skillful puppeteer.) The very best puppet idea is having Zeisler's Duke, disguised as a cleric, played by a likeness of the actor.

A drama that strains so mightily to shoehorn happy endings in, even for the most despicable characters, seems a natural venue for the interplay of actors with heads of hair and others of wood. Posner's "Measure," in the end, is the chronicle of a world no one is meant to share particularly comfortably with anyone else. The wonder is that he manages to draw it as such an inviting place for us.

Measure for Measure, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Aaron Posner. Costumes, Devon Painter; lighting, John Hoey; sound, Neil McFadden. With Bob Barr, Craig Wallace. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through Feb. 26 at Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Call 202-544-7077 or visit http://www.folger.edu/ .

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