William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (circa 1604)—the story of a woman who is sexually victimized by a man in power—seems as though it would lend itself to an adaptation crafted in light of the #MeToo movement. To some extent, The Acting Company’s streamlined 95-minute modern-dress version proves itself a good fit for such an approach, although there are elements of Shakespeare’s play that don’t quite conform seamlessly with what director Janet Zarish seems to be going for.
The contemporary setting is introduced when voices from a news broadcast are heard on the sound system, enumerating a string of real-life 21st-century catastrophes and outrages. We’re in Vienna, in the court of Duke Vincentio (Keshav Moodliar). Yes, it’s a Vienna whose characters inexplicably have Italian names. (A real-life incident that may have inspired Shakespeare’s source material occurred in Milan in 1547). The duke is preparing to take leave of the city. He appoints a young associate named Angelo (Sam Lilja) to hold down the fort in his absence. Actually, though, the duke is not leaving town at all. He plans instead to stay put and keep an eye on Angelo—eventually disguising himself as a friar, no less. Though Angelo seems beyond reproach morally, the duke has misgivings about him.
Despite self-doubts, Angelo takes to his new role by cracking down on Viennese vice, which is apparently widespread. The taste of power proves intoxicating to him. Soon, a young man named Claudio (Lorenzo Jackson) finds himself condemned to death for impregnating his lover Juliet (the excellent Katherine Renee Turner). When Claudio’s sister Isabella (Rebekah Brockman), a novice in a convent, pleads for Claudio’s life, Angelo becomes sexually aroused by her innocence and goodness. He offers mercy if she will go to bed with him. In any “he-spake, she-spake” showdown, what are the chances that Isabella will be believed if she accuses Angelo of sexual corruption?
The parallels to contemporary sexual politics work especially well in scenes at the end of the play, in which the Duke “returns” and stages a big reveal of Angelo’s perfidy. Here we get what is essentially a public hearing, with witnesses sitting at heavy desks and speaking into microphones. Angelo is in one of these hot seats, looking increasingly like a squirming Brett Kavanaugh.
This rendition of the play makes Isabella a stronger, more self-reliant character than Shakespeare likely intended. She is not remotely frail or helpless. Oddly, when she learns of her brother’s death sentence and appears before Angelo to plead for mercy, she doesn’t even come off as especially anguished. She might well be disputing a parking ticket. In the key scene in which Angelo attempts to sexually accost Isabella, Brockman continues to play things relatively cool and controlled. Even when Isabella comes to believe at one point that Claudio has been executed, the idea doesn’t seem to faze her much. Is it Brockman’s determination not to portray the character as victim that makes her seem so emotionally disengaged?
The production is more effective in its deconstruction of the duke’s motives. Moodliar makes the character a smug sort, in love with his own benevolence and cleverness. His actions in going undercover to spy on Angelo amount to an elaborate sting operation, undertaken to see whether “power changes purpose”—in other words, to see whether Angelo will abuse the responsibility bestowed on him. However, the duke could reveal himself at any moment and stop the string of unfortunate events that ensues. He chooses instead to prolong the charade in order to play cat-and-mouse with Angelo and other characters. None of this comes off as particularly good governance. Also, part of the duke’s motivation comes from the fact that he has himself found something attractive in Isabella.
The youthful Lilja does well in his portrayal of Angelo, who quickly sinks deep into lust, corruption and hypocrisy while another part of his psyche looks on in alarm and shame. Some of the best performances in the show, though, come from supporting players (some of whom play multiple roles). These include the aforementioned Turner, along with Henry Jenkinson as the Provost and Galen Ryan Kane as Friar Thomas. Laura Gragtmans has a good turn as well, portraying Angelo’s bereft former fiancée Mariana. At one point she even sings a misery-stuffed pop-style ballad while strumming a guitar. Apparently, the spurned character has turned her grief into art by becoming a troubadour of sorts.
Measure for Measure, despite its gloomy plot, has traditionally been classified as a comedy. Some of Shakespeare’s low comic characters in the play—Elbow, Froth and Pompey—have been scrapped from this version. This leaves the burden of stoking laughs largely on the shoulders of Anthony Bowden as the rakish and smarmy Lucio (a name that perhaps should be spelled “Louche-io”). Bowden’s cynical Lucio snorts cocaine, wears a shirt unbuttoned to his belly, and dominates the proceedings whenever he shows up. He’s one of the best things in the production.
Neil Patel’s unit set—gray, with a lot of stairs—functions well as palace, prison, monastery and nunnery. (It also is used for The Acting Company’s other current play, Native Son.) Alan C. Edwards’ lighting design is most impressive in an early scene set outside a dance club. The costumes by Jessica Wegener Shay are for the most part smart and rich-looking.
The biggest twist of the evening comes at the denouement when Zarish and Brockman turn Shakespeare’s story on its ear, giving us a finish that defies traditional expectations. While not true to the original “happy ending,” this surprise will prove satisfying to many—perhaps most—2019 playgoers.
Measure for Measure (through August 24, 2019)
The Acting Company
The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 646-223-3010 or visit http://www.Dukeon42.org
Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission