William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is usually considered a comedy—albeit a dark one. But in Shakespeare Theatre Company director Jonathan Munby’s production, currently playing at Washington’s Lansburgh Theatre, the play is both comedy and tragedy: “I think people find the duality of it problematic,” he said in a video interview. “For me, it doesn’t feel problematic. It actually feels like one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. I really do think this is a masterpiece. What Shakespeare offers us, I think, is a slice of humanity. And as we know, life is both comic and tragic.”
In Munby’s production, paradox—between comedy and tragedy, truth and duplicity, temptation and purity—takes center stage. The beautiful set, with its tattered curtains and peeling paint, seems to symbolize a façade of morality fallen into decay. Everything is colored in bold black, white, and red, bringing a symbolic representation to the virtue, vice, and temptation threaded through each scene.
Measure for Measure is a play of ethical dilemmas. The dialogue is strewn with moral irony, in which “some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.” The Duke of Vienna (Kurt Rhoads), has allowed rule of law to deteriorate through soft rule, and decides to elect a magistrate in his stead: the puritanical and dogmatic Angelo (Scott Parkinson). Though the Duke pretends to leave Vienna, he actually remains in a priestly disguise. Meanwhile, Angelo begins cracking down on the city’s rampant sin. He condemns Claudio (Avery Clark) to death for sleeping with his fiancé out of wedlock. Distraught at her brother’s impending death, Claudio’s sister Isabella (Miriam Silverman), a novice nun, goes to Angelo and pleads for his life. As she implores mercy for her brother, Angelo’s lust is awakened toward her. He promises to spare her brother’s life—if she consents to sleep with him. The story unfolds around this moral predicament: whether Isabella should give up her chastity, or allow her brother to die.
Munby chose to stage the play in post-WWI Vienna, an early 1930’s society of disillusionment and ungoverned sexuality. It is a post-Freudian society, in which his conceptions of psychoanalysis, creativity, and liberation have unleashed new views of sexuality and the ego. Prostitution and extra-marital fornication represent new norms. But against this backdrop of licentiousness, Fascism raises its bold fist. Angelo, in full Nazi costume, represents a new and harsh rule of law.
The play pushes boundaries at almost every turn, taking Measure for Measure’s inherent sexuality to a more controversial level. In Munby’s conception, sexuality is the central dilemma of every character. Thus, this production fully earns its “Recommended for ages 18 and above” rating. Even while the audience was shuffling to their seats, the play included a cabaret pre-show and striptease.
Perhaps the director’s most interesting character rendering was the Duke. From perusing the play’s dialogue, one pictures him as rather paternal and kind, but a soft leader. In conceptualizing the Duke, Munby looks to the man Shakespeare modeled him after: James I, a “bi-sexual, hard-drinking, theatre-loving” king. Thus, the Duke in Munby’s conception is “a man wrestling with his own sexuality and identity, someone who is seeking to know himself after a period of anarchy for fourteen years.” The Duke cloaks himself in priestly garb and orchestrates the judgment of Angelo—but isn’t afraid to smudge ethical rules in order to obtain his end purpose (“The doubleness of the benefit will defeat the deceit,” he assures Isabella in one scene). Munby lends the Duke an ethically messy past, full of intrigue and cowardice. When he reveals himself at the end of the play, in full regalia and authority, it almost seems he is putting on an unlawful mask of moral authority. Thus, the greatest foil this play seems to offer is between Angelo, the man of great moral resolution who falls, and the Duke, the fallen man who puts on moral resolution. And betwixt the two of them is Isabella: perhaps the one character who offers both moral and intellectual integrity.
One wishes the acting were a bit stronger. Scott Parkinson’s characterization of Angelo was sadly one-dimensional: he embodied the ascetic Angelo, perhaps, but never the wild and lustful man beneath. The character’s deep emotional complexity was glazed over. Similarly, Kurt Rhoads could have showed greater passion and feeling as the Duke, especially considering his interesting backstory. The only characters that ultimately charmed were Lucio, played by Cameron Folmar, and Miriam Silverman’s Isabella. Folmar is a stellar comedic actor, with a gift for witty dialogue and comic expressions. Silverman portrayed Isabella’s devotion and winsomeness with spirit.
The play is sexually charged and messy. But its thoughtful presentation of ethics made it a worthwhile interpretation of an oft-overlooked Shakespearian drama. It will run at Lansburgh through October 27.