Court Theatre

An ugly modern problem festers inside Shakespeare’s darkest comedy: the abuse of power, in the form of sexual harassment. Though unsatisfying as a whole–the ending seems stolen from a much worse play and resolves none of the story’s burning problems–Measure for Measure is ripe with cautionary depictions of “seeming, seeming” and obsessed with the difference between letter and spirit in both the law and life. In the play’s treacherous world of glass houses and stone throwers, truth needs protection against power.

In the play’s central crisis Isabella, a convent novice, must choose between letting herself be raped by Angelo, the power-drunk deputy of Venice, and letting her brother Claudio be executed–for the very crime that Angelo intends, fornication. (And Claudio only did it with his fiancee!) It’s hard to explain hypocrisy like Angelo’s, or his chilling taunt when Isabella threatens to expose him: “Who would believe thee?” Could the man in charge of enforcing the laws against sexual harassment actually use the protection of his office to cover his own sins? No–even cynicism has its limits.

Claudio initially agrees with Isabella that she should defy Angelo, but as the fear of death descends on him (depicted in one of Shakespeare’s scariest passages), he pleads with her to make the sacrifice. But Isabella is unflinching in defense of her chastity. The play’s “happy” ending, coming only after much torturous and uninspired explanation, could easily be seen as tragic.

A second unpleasant element is Angelo’s superior, the “absent” Duke. Disguised as a friar, he manipulates the others like a cat playing with its prey. His pretended abdication allows Angelo to abuse his trust, and the Duke nearly allows Angelo to proceed with his crime, lying to Isabella about her brother’s death and, in his pettiest moment, seeming more concerned with chastising the impudent rascal Lucio than punishing the murderous Angelo. The Duke calls it using “craft against vice,” but really he’s playing God.

The challenge in staging Measure for Measure is that the best scenes come early–apparently Shakespeare was inspired by the psychological extremes of Angelo’s power-driven lust, Isabella’s ferocious virtue, and Claudio’s palpable fear of death. Any staging must rise rapidly to the operatic level of the Angelo-Isabella and Isabella-Claudio confrontations, and hope the rest of the play can coast on that momentum.

Though this Court Theatre production is marred by an unsettling mix of acting styles (especially in the lame comic scenes), director Nicholas Rudall shapes the early, crucial scenes into solid conflicts. Bruce Orendorf powerfully underlines first the wrenching conflict of Claudio’s choice between his own survival and his sister’s honor and then the crushing fear of death. Defying another character’s description of Angelo, Kevin Gudahl as the deputy seems hot-blooded even when he’s not with Isabella–there’s little contrast between the private and public persons–but Gudahl’s flawless delivery makes up for the lack of variation in character. As the Duke, David Darlow had a rocky opening night (he appeared to have forgotten his lines), but the character survived–if anything, Darlow gave the predatory Duke more dignity than he deserves.

No mere convent could contain Kate Goehring’s expansive and volatile Isabella; this is not the cold monster of chastity often supplied for the part. Goehring wants us to admire Isabella as a spunky fighter, but it’s hard to reconcile that with the vestal virgin/Valkyrie who calmly pronounces, “More than our brother is our chastity.” But if a modern audience rejects Isabella, they throw out half the play. Maybe Goehring’s right.

Peter Siragusa and Gerry Becker are tepidly amusing as venal Pompey and idiotic Elbow, but Larry Yando has rich fun with the outrageous liar Lucio. Kenneth Northcott is excellent as the wise counselor Escalus.

This Measure for Measure has a clean, nonperiod look; Rita Pietraszek’s highly charged lighting is a standout. But the huge shower curtains that billow through Jeff Bauer’s set look temporary and tacky.