"Measure for Measure"

Through Oct. 23

Clark Street Playhouse

Tickets: 703/418-4808

Vienna, Ga., rather than Vienna, Austria, is the scene for Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" in director Michael Russotto's contemporary restaging of the play. That's Georgia of the 1960s, to be exact -- complete with a Baptist church choir, which serves as a type of Greek chorus to help audiences understand this complicated "problem" play.

A southern gospel choir in a Shakespeare play? The concept isn't as far-fetched as it sounds. As Russotto has re-imagined it, race relations heighten the drama -- the Duke of Vienna and his court are white, while his subjects are black, including the virtuous Isabella, the woman whom Angelo, the Duke's white deputy, is trying to seduce. So the sometimes uplifting, sometimes lecturing voice of a choir becomes a natural element to highlight the play's most important points.

"What I felt the chorus could do," Russotto says, "is illuminate the play, to underscore with songs the action that was going on."

Joanna Navas is captain of the five-member choir; a former choir singer in real life, she helped Russotto select the gospel songs. Among them are the black national anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which opens the play, "I'm Gonna Sing When the Spirit Says to Sing" and "Lord, Don't Move This Mountain," which closes Act I. (Pictured above, from left, Verlene Biddings, Theresa Davis, Michelle Rogers, Navas and Jam Donaldson.)

"That's one of our favorite ones," she says. "It comes right after Isabella learns from the Duke that Angelo wants to sleep with her. It's saying, `I'm going to deal with this, I'm going to prevail over this obstacle.' "

Not all of the choir singers -- all of whom are actors playing other roles in the play -- have had experience in actual choirs before, but under Navas's direction, their voices blend harmoniously. Says Navas, "A lot of people have commented that it sounds like we've been singing together for years."