“What were you taking as your cue to come snort coke here?” director Jonathan Munby asks an actor during a rehearsal for Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “Measure for Measure.” He advises another: “So, during this transition: sex toy.”
This is Shakespeare at its naughtiest. To frame the world of the play, in which a hypocritical Viennese judge ushers in an era of moral prudishness, Munby chose as its setting Vienna in the 1930s, as fascism was taking hold and lingerie-clad performers were taking to cabaret stages.
Thus, a prologue was born — a bustling nightclub crowded with dancers, drug addicts and drunks — all unfolding to the tune of four original songs by composer Adam Wernick.
“What they [the audience] observe is a world in full swing,” Munby says. “What it isn’t is a performance for them. We are voyeuristically eavesdropping on a world.”
And, of course, that world is one of excess and sexuality. There is drug use, homoeroticism, naughty schoolgirls and even naughtier nuns. (In other words, don’t bring the kids.) Wernick based his compositions on popular music of the era, and Munby and his partner, Martin Hutson, wrote the raunchy lyrics for such songs as “[Expletive] the Honest Living” and “Naughty Nuns (Wimples to the Wall).”
But you won’t be able to make out the words, unless you happen to be fluent in German. Munby says they translated the original song lyrics from English into German to preserve the play’s identity and integrity.
“We can give the audience a sense of location and setting, but we can also keep their ear unsullied, so that when we hear the text of the play spoken for the first time, we’re not in competition or conflict with spoken English before,” he says.
One of the songs is a torch number based on the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. It introduces the character of Mariana, who sings another song later in the play that was lifted from the original Shakespearean text. As it turns out, however, iambic pentameter doesn’t take easily to a slow, jazzy tempo.
“It’s a beautiful piece of text unless you’re trying to turn it into a cabaret torch song,” Wernick says. “You have to live with the language long enough to sort of become fluent in it, and then suddenly you can speak it.”
And when you live in the world of “Measure for Measure” long enough and issues of power and integrity are considered, you can begin to see present day parallels.
“What laws do we follow — the law of our own conscience, our morality? The law of government?” Munby asks. “It’s just a perfect play for a D.C. audience. I think this audience is asking some of these questions, and wrestling with some of these ideas.”
Some scholars have called “Measure for Measure” one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” for its shifts between comedy and darker, more complex ideas. But in Munby’s opinion, the play’s incongruities are its strengths.
“It’s a hybrid tragicomedy, and what I love about that is that it feels like life,” he says. “Life is absurd and funny and awful and tragic, and everything in between, and that’s exactly what this play is.”
Through Oct. 27 at the Lansburgh Theatre,
450 Seventh St. NW. $20-$110. 202-547-1122. www.shakespearetheatre.org. Recommended for age 18 and older.