WASHINGTON, September 27, 2013 – When one thinks of Shakespeare, images of medieval royal intrigue come to mind. But in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s current take on the Bard’s “Measure for Measure,” director Jonathan Munby fast forwards the action of this complex tragi-comedy about sex and power to Vienna’s chaotic and decadent pre-World War II decade. In the process, he weaves Shakespeare’s original tale of Venetian palace intrigue into an immediate, believable 20th century cabaret subculture milieu.
Shakespeare’s plot itself centers on a despicable act—the propositioning a virginal novice nun by the play’s arch villain, the evil judge Angelo. Scott Parkinson plays him in this production with remarkable amorality and disdain.
Angelo is serving as a temporary stand-in for Duke Vincentio (Kurt Rhoads) who’s allegedly out of town on a diplomatic mission. Instead, at least in this production, he stays in town to exorcize his sexual demons and desires disguised as the less-than-holy Friar Lodowick. The phony friar frequents the bawdy leather bars of Berlin where cross-dressing dancers provide background and cover for his alter ego.
This spruced-up, modernized production of one of Shakespeare’s more difficult plays takes a chance, opening with an interpolated, high-energy 30-minute cabaret session orchestrated seductively by the ambiguously gay Lucio – played with an extra serving of secret sauce by Cameron Folmar. As the actual play begins, Lucio assumes an ongoing role as underground matchmaker between and among the odd couples that litter this production’s Freudian landscape of disconnected lovers.
He ultimately gets an audience for the innocent novice nun Isabella (Miriam Silverman) to plead for his friend and her brother Claudio’s (Avery Clark’s) life. The hapless Claudio has been condemned to death in the Duke’s absence by the apparently prudish Angelo for impregnating his true love, Juliet (Katie deBuys)—who, in an odd bit of legal ambiguity, is likely already Claudio’s wife. It’s all outrageously unfair, as Claudio proclaims, decrying his fate with his famous line, “I am so out of love with life.”
But so, too, is his sister. When the hapless Isabella is offered a chance to free her brother in exchange for submitting to the two-faced Angelo, Shakespeare’s Byzantine plot really cranks into motion, eventually bringing into play Angelo’s spurned former fiancée, Mariana (Natascia Diaz).
Jonathan Munby’s contemporary juxtaposition of this play’s dueling themes of carnal knowledge and court intrigue—much of it orchestrated backstage by the wily Duke disguised as a Friar—ultimately leads to a surprising yet strangely satisfying conclusion.
All the key players in Munby’s decidedly non-standard vision work closely together to bring Shakespeare’s dark problem comedy brilliantly to life. But arguably, the literal scene stealer in this production is set designer Alexander Dodge who, along with this all-star team, transforms the Lansburgh’s expansive stage from a smoky cabaret to an opulent courtroom, to a depressing grey dungeon with peeling paint and rolling prisoner cages.
This Shakespeare update wins a top rating for its consistently skilled ensemble of over twenty actors, its well-paced multiple set transformations from decadent to downtrodden Vienna, and its dramatic costuming, ambiance, and set, sound and lighting design, all of which combine to ensure the Shakespeare Theatre Company continues to remain a unique jewel in DC’s bustling downtown arts district.
Rating: **** (Four out of four stars)
The Shakespeare Theatre’s production of “Measure for Measure” continues at the Lansburgh through October 27. Address: 450 Seventh St. NW. For tickets and information, call the box office at 202-547-1122 or link to www.shakespearetheatre.org.
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