Center Theater

What’s worth more–a sister’s chastity or her brother’s life? This is the dilemma that confronts the inmates of Shakespeare’s dark comedy Measure for Measure. It’s a weakly structured play–especially in its perfunctory conclusion–but it has some deep, true writing, as well as three of the bard’s most disturbing creations: the brother, Claudio; the sister, Isabella; and their tormentor, Angelo.

Isabella, a novice, is drawn from her cloister when she learns Claudio has just been arrested for fornication. Her brother’s jailing is part of the sudden crackdown unleashed by the seemingly virtuous Angelo, the scholarly civil servant who has been named temporary ruler of Vienna.

Angelo’s hard-liner rationale is that “We must not make a scarecrow of the law.” Almost casually, he sentences Claudio to death, saying “‘Tis one thing to be tempted, another thing to fall.” But it turns out that the lustful Angelo is as capable of sin as Claudio, When Isabella pleads for her brother, Angelo erupts with a lust he never knew he harbored; once Isabella’s purity has perversely ignited his prurience, he tells her he’ll spare her brother’s life if she’ll submit to him. Isabella indignantly refuses–and at first Claudio, prepared for death, agrees with her: “If I must die, I will encounter darkness as a bride / And hug her in my arms.”

But the fear of death, chillingly conveyed in one of Shakespeare’s most powerful speeches, conquers Claudio. He tells Isabella that if she doesn’t sacrifice her virginity, he’ll be forced “to lie in cold obstruction, and to rot.” When his sister refuses–“More precious than our brother is our chastity”–she shows herself as hard-hearted as Angelo. (It makes you wonder whether Angelo, more like Isabella than either realizes, is drawn more to her rigid moralism than to her body.)

Unfortunately, Shakespeare never allows any suspense over the outcome: the real Duke, disguised as a friar, soon discovers Angelo’s double standard and his double crosses. But the Duke doesn’t reveal himself. In fact, you could argue that the Duke is the real villain of Measure for Measure: playing God, he toys with Isabella, Claudio, and Angelo like a cat with its prey, at one point even allowing Isabella to think her brother has been executed.

As if he’s just gotten tired of the whole damn thing, at the end Shakespeare sidesteps–not at all neatly–the whole dilemma, resorting to an old favorite, the substitution gambit. Angelo thinks he’s bedded Isabella, but his real (and willing) victim is Mariana, the woman he jilted when she lost her dowry and who, yes, still loves the swine. (Masochistic maidens seem virtually indispensable to Shakespeare’s plot resolutions.)

To a modern audience the play ends on an ugly note, Angelo all but pardoned and our chaste Isabella all too promptly ready to marry the Duke the moment he asks her. (Apparently the nunnery was a bargaining chip–she was just holding out for the highest offer.)

But at its best, Measure for Measure illustrates one of Shakespeare’s magnificent obsessions, the need for authority to know itself well enough to show the kind of mercy it may one day require itself: “Man, proud man! / Dress’d in a little brief authority / . . . Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven / As make the angels weep.” Angelo’s power only magnifies his too-human weakness. OK, but you wonder why such a wasteful and painful experiment is necessary–unless the Duke is just a sadistic, manipulative bastard, which has always been my favorite theory.

But why theorize? This 180-minute, modern-dress Center Theater production is itself a wasteful, painful experiment. You know something’s sour when the first thing you glimpse is a moronic tableau with the entire cast half-clothed and clutching each other like grinning idiots. Matters only worsen when the sound track–egregiously intrusive musical manipulation–thrusts itself into every scene with a bizarre mix of Bach partitas, Renaissance motets, hard rock, jazz riffs, and both Johann and Richard Strauss thrown in for bad measure. But things really go downhill when pregnant pauses milk to death the play’s predictable reversals, turning them into so many stillbirths.

With nothing new to say about Measure for Measure and an apparent unwillingness to either get inside these burdened characters or explore the play’s moral ambiguity, Jack Wetherall opts for a directionless drift. The cast of 15 is therefore thrown back upon its own acting styles (or lack thereof). Some swim, most sink.

The best swimmer is Chris Karchmar, whose clipped and efficient Angelo is a deep-dyed hypocrite capable of precise and cold-blooded condemnations–all of which set him up for his own kill; in Karchmar’s rendering, the puritan’s sudden lust feels very true. Unfortunately, during Angelo’s second meeting with Isabella, the director has Karchmar practically rape her, which makes a mockery of Angelo’s desire to make the lady agree to her own deflowering.

Like Sally Field at the Oscars, Kathy Scambiatterra’s breathless Isabella really, really wants us to like her. But there’s a coldness at the core (I won’t say heart) of this character that Scambiatterra’s irritatingly perky depiction misses entirely. John Mossman plays Claudio with a fervor that ends up seeming painted strictly by the numbers. The passion he brings to his lines he should be getting from them. In the same way, Marc Vann as the stage-managing Duke never shows us why he tests his subjects to the breaking point. It’s not as if the Duke’s lines don’t hint at a motive for his machinations.

In this production, the relief–comic or otherwise–comes only when it’s over. As Shakespeare’s clumsy clowns, Gus Buktenica and Peter DeFaria are loud but tedious and unfunny (admittedly their quips make less than howling comedy). Dale Calandra, who’s never lacked for comic talent, is badly miscast as the lying bully who tweaks the disguised Duke and regrets it later. But Leo Daignault has a brief, sweet moment as he sings a cappella the lovely “Take, O take, those lips away.” It’s one of this show’s few pure and unforced moments.