The brutal story, it seems, is always the same.
You come quickly to that understanding in the Eisenhower Theater, even as you struggle to keep up with the English translation of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” being projected onto a screen far above the stage. The linguistic aid is absolutely essential in the case of director Declan Donnellan’s stark, unique and vibrant staging, at least for those of us who aren’t fluent in Russian.
Because, yes, this is Shakespeare in Russian, performed by a cadre of elegant Moscow actors, in a taut and streamlined version of “Measure” that crystallizes the universality of the age-old burden placed on women, to contend with the unwanted sexual demands of powerful men.
This utterly contemporary thread of “Measure for Measure” elicits muted laughs of recognition in the theater, despite the communication gap that the production has inadequately addressed. The decision to suspend the surtitles at so high an altitude turns the quest to comprehend into an athletic challenge; passages of Shakespearean verse zoom by before you can shift your gaze from an actor’s face to the panel fixed up there in the stratosphere.
It’s frustrating. Subtitling devices have been deployed more effectively for other productions at the Kennedy Center, and while you eventually work out a strategy for viewing and understanding this one, the best strategy for non-Russian speakers would be to bone up on the play beforehand.
Because for anyone who knows “Measure for Measure,” Donnellan’s mostly modern-dress staging evinces a seamlessness of an extremely high order. For this play that is so much about the distractions of the flesh, the director and his designer, Nick Ormerod — their international troupe, Cheek by Jowl, created the production — build a whole world out of the human form. The city of Vienna that Shakespeare conjures is here a veritable empty space, distinguished only by a set of large, red spinning boxes and 33 hanging light fixtures.
Into this space Donnellan dispatches his actors, as if they are a swarm of bees, circling the stage in a tight unit. They withdraw at key moments to reveal central characters, such as the Duke (Alexander Arsentyev), the tolerant Viennese ruler who, disturbed by his decadent subjects’ flouting of the moral code, installs an authoritarian prig, Angelo (Andrei Kuzichev) in his seat while he goes undercover to observe the results. The most horrifying of these is duplicitous Angelo’s attempt to extort sexual favors from Isabella (Anna Vardevanian) in return for the life of her brother Claudio (Petr Rykov), condemned to death for the crime of fornication.
Productions of “Measure for Measure” often stress the spiritual decay of Shakespeare’s Vienna, a city in which prostitution seems to be the chief industry. But in this more focused adaptation — played out in an economical two hours — Donnellan and company key in on how the proclivities of one man can infect the consciousness of an entire society. (Given the existence of a Slavic semi-superpower of today rife with corruption, in which one tyrannical voice drowns out all others, could such an interpretation feel more on point?)
Arsentyev and Kuzichev’s convincingly contrapuntal performances reveal the opposite potentialities of men with unchecked power, toward a beguiling benevolence and a stone-faced cruelty, and Vardevanian embodies the object of both of their ardor as a fiercely compelling force for goodness. But in the aftermath of the bitter Viennese dust that Angelo kicks up, can the resoundingly upbeat conclusion of “Measure for Measure” be believed? The farcical devices that Shakespeare imposes on the latter half of the play, particularly the “bed trick” perpetrated against Angelo that fools him into marriage to Mariana (Elmira Mirel), feel tonally out of whack with the disturbing events that precede them.
Nevertheless, the production maintains a near-hypnotic hold on us, in its deft brandishing of the tools of storytelling: skillfully light applications of music and dance; a forceful rendering of the drama’s violent undercurrents; a keen handling of the timeless hypocrisies characterizing men’s sexual coercion of women. These are strengths that transcend words — and on this occasion they have to.
Measure for Measure, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Declan Donnellan. Set and costumes, Nick Ormerod; lighting, Sergey Skornetskiy; choreography, Irina Kashuba; music, Pavel Akimkin. With Alexander Feklistov, Elmira Mirel, Anastasia Lebedeva. About 2 hours. $29-$75. Through Saturday at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. kennedy-center.org or 202-467-4600.