The first image of Stratford’s thought-provoking new production of Measure For Measure is of a large-boned woman, in a mask and thick heels, pounding on a gate far upstage. Frantic attendants come, open the gate, and let the woman in – and she removes mask, wig, heels, makeup, to reveal herself as Geraint Wyn Davies – or, rather, Vincentio, Duke of Vienna. The attendants withdraw, and for a minute the Duke smokes a cigarette, collecting himself before the drama begins.

Or, I should say, the next drama. Because this opening puts us on notice: this man needs drama in his life, and is already adept at finding it when it does not find him.

Measure is a puzzle, and Duke Vincentio is at the heart of that puzzle. Is he a good man manipulating people to come to their better selves? Is he a Machiavellian hypocrite, as full of vice as the city he knows needs to be reformed? Is he a weak man, afraid to confront villainy directly, and who therefore prefers to work behind the scenes? Or is he more than a man, a kind of figure of Divine Providence, the hidden hand who is always working for our good, though we don’t see it? Director Martha Henry’s approach to the puzzle is to refuse to solve it – to embrace the ambiguities of the character and of the play, and say, in effect: he is those ambiguities, and that is precisely what makes him fascinating.

To summarize the story of the subsequent drama briefly: Duke Vincentio leaves Vienna in the care of his deputy, Angelo, assisted by his other deputy, Escalus. But he returns in disguise as a friar to see how they are handling things in his absence. Angelo, a rigidly righteous fellow, restores to force a variety of strict laws against sexual offenses, and condemns Claudio to death for fornication – even though he is ready and willing to marry the woman pregnant by him (indeed, the marriage was already arranged, though the details of the dowry were still being negotiated). Isabella, Claudio’s sister, is about to enter a convent, permanently to withdraw from the world and from male company, when she is importuned by the bawdy Lucio to plead for her brother, Claudio’s life.

Angelo, though, falls in love with Isabella, precisely because of her apparent saintliness, and makes her an offer: if she’ll sleep with him, he’ll let Claudio go. Isabella refuses, tells Claudio he must die; Claudio pleads for life; and into the breach between siblings strides the disguised Duke, with a plan to right all wrongs: save Claudio; force Angelo to marry a woman, Marianna, whom he dumped unceremoniously five years earlier; and preserve Isabella’s chastity by substituting Marianna for Isabella at the assignation (the classic “bed trick” ploy also used in All’s Well That Ends Well).

This plan runs into hitch after hitch – the bed trick works, but Angelo breaks his promise to spare Claudio; attempt to forestall Claudio’s death by substituting another prisoner run into snags as well, but eventually the plan comes together. The Duke isn’t done, though, but chooses to prolong the drama by refusing to reveal Claudio’s salvation to Isabella, or to reveal his hidden presence to Angelo and Escalus. Everything comes together in an absurd final scene when the Duke in both his own and his borrowed monkish identity return to Vienna; only after he is unmasked by Lucio does the Duke perforce reveal his doubleness, and also, eventually, that Claudio lives. At which point, in a final absurdity, he proposes marriage to Isabella.

So who is this old fantastical Duke of dark corners?

*     *     *

Like Hamlet and Prospero, Duke Vincentio is a theatrical director (though the concept is anachronistic for an Elizabethan play, they all manipulate people into playing their desired parts in a staged drama, so it makes sense to call them that). But where their predisposition to manipulate people in this way gives us insight into the depths of their character, Duke Vincentio’s motives only get more puzzling.

When he gives his deputies, Angelo and Escalus, their commissions, to rule in his stead during his absence, he gives them no explanation for his departure. He does provide an explanation to Friar Thomas, who furnishes him with the disguise under which which he will return to observe Vienna in his absence. He has been too lenient a ruler, he says, and the consequence has been a dangerous decay of the social order. But it would appear tyrannous for him to suddenly impose the law strictly, and so he has given this task to Angelo.

This justifies his departure – but why return in disguise?

                   More reasons for this action
At our more leisure shall I render you;
Only, this one: Lord Angelo is precise;
Stands at a guard with envy; scarce confesses
That his blood flows, or that his appetite
Is more to bread than stone: hence shall we see,
If power change purpose, what our seemers be.

He is, in other words, conducting a bit of an experiment, as God does with Job, or the Duke brothers do with Eddie Murphy in “Trading Places” – he lacks only a companion with whom to wager. He is not, like Henry V before the battle, wandering disguised in order to get a true picture of his people’s morale; nor is he, like any number of Shakespearean characters, disguised out of prudence. He’s just curious what will happen.

*     *     *

How are we to take this behavior? Well, it depends on who we think he is. The Christian apologetic tradition in interpreting the play reads Vincentio as a kind of figure of divine providence, working behind the scenes to arrange a happy ending for the drama. In that kind of reading, the experiment is very akin to God’s testing of Job. And the play, in turn, becomes Isabella’s, since she has the grandest dramatic arc of the story.

Isabella starts out eager for the most restrictive rule available, and is so disgusted by her brother’s act of sleeping with his intended wife a bit early that she can barely bring herself to plead for his life. When he begs her to save him by doing this little sin (a wonderful moment by Christopher Prentice), she calls his plea a kind of incest to “take life” from his sister’s shame (which, if you think about it more, isn’t quite right; it is the child, the product of incest, who “takes life” from violation; this is one of a number of classically Freudian slips by this father-fixated girl whom Shakespeare – uncannily – made Viennese). But by the end of the play, though she thinks her brother dead by Angelo’s hand, yet at Marianna’s request she pleads for Angelo’s life, saying Claudio died justly according to the law, while Angelo cannot be condemned for fornication or adultery because he slept only with his affianced wife. And this is the act that leads the Duke to unmask the still-living Claudio, and to propose marriage to her.

As I say, the Christian apologetic approach makes this Isabella’s play, a play about achieving truly selfless Christian forgiveness. And if that is the play that Martha Henry wanted to direct, she had an excellent Isabella in Carmen Grant – the first I’ve seen who I really believed wanted to be a nun, who really seemed disgusted by sex, and whose forgiveness of Angelo at the end felt like the final achievement of the selflessness that she sought at the beginning. I would compare her journey to that of Tolstoy’s Father Sergius, who also starts out trying to be holy, and fails precisely because of trying. Father Sergius is only able to finally be holy when he gives up on the idea of defending himself from sin (because he fails, catastrophically, to avoid the temptations of a rather succubus-like girl who comes to visit his cell), and sees himself as hopelessly . . . human. And, ceasing to seek holiness, he simply is holy, no longer having desires to satisfy. So, Isabella, ceasing to seek justice on those who have sinned – against her – finds her way to see the human pain even in Angelo, and finally achieves the holiness she sought by no longer seeking it by fleeing sin, but comprehending it.

She also has, in Tom Rooney, a nearly perfect Angelo. I have never felt so clearly the self-loathing that is at this man’s heart, and which he has turned outward upon the world. It’s a very nice touch that, when we first meet his Angelo, so fiercely correct in his behavior, his clothes are in disarray. Immediately, we understand the struggle this man has undergone to maintain his rectitude. It humanizes him from the very start, and sets us up for his final scene, when he begs for death – there’s no relief in his plea, but a final expression of what he has always felt, the whole play through.

*     *     *

Henry, in other words, has her Christian allegory ready to hand, if that’s what she wanted. And it plays, powerfully, on-stage. But this is only a viable reading if you completely ignore the Duke’s actual behavior during the play. His weirdly manic and impulsive behavior, after all, hardly comports well with the notion that he represents a secret divine plan.

Moreover, take a look at the only extended soliloquy the Duke has in the play (unlike Hamlet and Prospero – and unlike Angelo in Measure itself – Duke Vincentio is not given to unburdening himself directly to the audience). It’s at the end of Act III, at the moment the Duke has conceived his plan for the bed trick, but before he has put it into effect:

He who the sword of heaven will bear
Should be as holy as severe;
Pattern in himself to know,
Grace to stand, and virtue go;
More nor less to others paying
Than by self-offences weighing.
Shame to him whose cruel striking
Kills for faults of his own liking!
Twice treble shame on Angelo,
To weed my vice and let his grow!
O, what may man within him hide,
Though angel on the outward side!
How may likeness made in crimes,
Making practise on the times,
To draw with idle spiders’ strings
Most ponderous and substantial things!
Craft against vice I must apply:
With Angelo to-night shall lie
His old betrothed but despised;
So disguise shall, by the disguised,
Pay with falsehood false exacting,
And perform an old contracting.

This is the most extensive view we get into the mind of the man who is directing the play. Twenty-two lines of rhymed iambic tetrameter – which doesn’t rule out greatness – “Now my charms are all o’erthrown” is twenty lines in the same meter, also rhymed – but put to put the two speeches one beside the other is to reveal just how awful this verse is. If this is the mind of God, heaven help us all, and poets especially. I suspect that Henry and Wyn Davies agree with me, because in this production, he declaims the childish doggerel with precisely the glee of a child who’s thought of some terribly clever trick.

Finally, if this Duke is supposed to be a figure of Divine Providence, then how is it that his own plan only comes off because of an unexpected gift from an unseen God?

*     *     *

The scene is in the prison. Duke Vincentio, having learned that Angelo will not pardon Claudio as he promised, is searching for a way to trick him, and stall for time. He initially suggests executing the murderer Barnardine and substituting his head for Claudio’s (which Angelo has requested specifically to receive – why is a good question, since he is tormented by his own determination to kill him and so forestall vengeance; this would seem to be a new manifestation of his essential self-loathing), but this doesn’t come off as Barnardine (played, in this production, as a great shambling pile by Robert Persichini – more on him anon) refuses “to die for any man’s persuasion.” All appears lost – until the Provost (the affecting Stephen Russell) recalls that they have a pirate in the prison, Ragozine, who just died of a fever, and who looks an awful lot like Claudio. Problem solved!

Except, this was a problem entirely of the playwright’s making. He had a solution to hand – Barnardine. Having created a convenient enough solution, he sets it aside for other, polemical purposes (for which I thank old Will – Barnardine’s scene is one of the greatest in the play). Now he has the problem again. And he solves it by the same means – a convenient head to substitute – except that now we, in the audience, are acutely aware of the way the playwright is manipulating us. One convenient head might have been accepted as necessary for the plot to work – but a second? And perfectly matched? And precisely because we are aware of the plot machinery working behind the scenes, this awareness redounds upon the Duke, who is doing the manipulation on stage, where we can see. He cannot be Divine Providence if he is dependent on Divine Providence as much as anybody else. And the whole idea of Divine Providence is rendered ridiculous by this kind of big, blinking arrow pointing at it.

The prison scene is important structurally as well in letting us know whose play this really is. Stanley Cavell (whom I can’t seem to avoid going back to again and again) in his discussion of the Shakespearean origins of the classic American romantic comedy, talks about the trip to the “green world” – archetypically the Forest of Arden – to which the heroine needs to retreat as part of her journey (back) to love and (re)marriage. And he finds a version of this green world in a variety of American romantic comedies of the 1930s and 1940s. The principal exception is “His Girl Friday” which does feature a trip to a different world – but in an ironic inversion of the green world trope, it’s the “black world” of the prison, where Rosalind Russell interviews the condemned man and thereby gets her (and Cary Grant) the story.

Well, this play also has a trip to the black world – to the prison, with the condemned. But the key journey isn’t made by Isabella, who visits Claudio early on. It’s by the Duke, in his search for a substitute for Claudio. He lights first on Barnardine – but Barnardine, as noted, will not die. But not only will he not die, he grips the Duke in his shaggy hands and forces him to the ground, before retreating to his cell. It’s quite scary – nobody seems to know how far Barnardine will go with this particular game, but Persichini mingles his potential for violence with a deep tenderness that is deeper and eerier than any other portrayal of Barnardine I’ve seen. This, it seems to me, is the moment when the Duke, if he is ever going to be, is brought face to face with the truth about what he is and the stakes of the game he is playing. And then he gets a reprieve, in the form of Ragozine, so that he can be left with his ambiguities intact.

Before I move on, I also want to say that the scene is a highlight not only of the play but of this production. Every part is played magnificently – Randy Hughson’s Pompey Bum truly comes into his own as assistant to Abhorson – and Abhorson! E. B. Smith is both terrifying and hilarious as the executioner, intoning his lines with a solemn madness that owes something to Agent Rogersz and even making the “every true man’s apparel fits your thief” bit play. I wish I could have seen a whole play of this scene.

*     *     *

So the Duke, from my perspective, must be a character, to be persuasive. And to its great credit, that’s what Henry and Wyn Davies treat him as. But, to their further credit, they don’t make him a persuasive character by narrowing him. They refuse to resolve any of the ambiguities in his character. They simply embrace them.

Duke Vincentio plans the bed trick to wed Angelo to Marianna, his five-years-abandoned fiancée. What’s been going on these five years? There are a variety of textual suggestions that the Duke has had some degree of intercourse with Marianna, possibly in both senses of the word. If we knew that were the case, we’d know the Duke was just covering his tracks – more hypocrisy. If the production covered those tracks, we’d never see them, and never ask the question. But this production leaves it ambiguous. There’s an electric sexual chemistry between Wyn Davies’s Duke and the luscious Sarah Afful’s Marianna – when she leaves the stage, Wyn Davies has to fan his nether regions to cool off – but Afful also plays Marianna with a kind of innocence; there’s no clear intimation of behind-doors conspiracy, or that Isabella is also, in a sense, being tricked.

Duke Vincentio, disguised as a friar, is repeatedly accosted by Lucio, who proclaims that the Duke would never be doing the horrible things Angelo is doing, because he was a “better woodman” than Angelo – Lucio rivals Mercutio as a fountain of sexual puns. Moreover, he claims to know this directly. Does he? We remember that first scene, of the Duke returning in drag from God knows what escapade. But we don’t actually know what the escapade was. We don’t know what this Duke likes to do. We know he likes to watch. And while Wyn Davies is unnerved by Lucio – unnerved enough that when, still disguised, he asks Escalus what his opinion is of the Duke, you sense he not sure what kind of answer he’ll get; he’s not so much testing Escalus as using him as a reality check. But we’re not sure whether he’s worried he’ll be found out, or if he’s worried he’s been misunderstood.

This ambiguity-embracing approach plays out to the very end of the play, when we never clearly get a fix on what the Duke is after with respect to Isabella. Did he fall in love with her at some point? If he did, I missed it – anyway, she doesn’t seem like his type (not if he’s got the hots for Marianna). For once, his lunatic proposal doesn’t elicit a strained incredulity from Isabella – she’s achieved sufficient selflessness that whatever will come, will come – but that leaves us even more completely in the dark.

I wound up deciding that the proposal was intended to harken back to the beginning of the production, when the Duke appeared in drag. Perhaps he was looking for a woman who would accept, and forgive, his own peculiar needs. Perhaps his plan all along was to create her, by whatever manipulations were necessary.

The last “shot” of the production gives us a fully confident Duke haloed with one spot, while the other captures Stephen Ouimette’s Lucio, looking perplexed and aghast – at his fate or the Duke’s, we can’t quite tell. I think I know what the production was trying to say with this juxtaposition, but I don’t think it quite got there because Lucio is not given sufficient free rein in this version of the play. Henry seems to want him to be “nicer” than Lucio usually is, but the result is merely that he isn’t as funny as I know Ouimette can be. (The same problem afflicts the talented Patricia Collins as the whore, Mistress Overdone, and Hughson’s Pompey prior to his imprisonment.) Moreover, why is he married, in this production, not to a “punk” (a whore) but to a policewoman? I’m all for playing around with the sense of the text for an effect, but in this case I didn’t know what the effect was. The juxtaposition of Lucio and the Duke in the end was another embrace of ambiguity, but in this case not as obviously fruitful, at least to me.

The production is not perfect – what production is? The pacing of the comedy, for example, felt slow to me (with the exception of Brian Tree’s Elbow, who is perfectly metronomic), and this play needs its comic relief. And because of its treatment of Lucio, I felt like the play didn’t feel entirely comfortable with its own view of human sexual desire – as if letting Lucio be as bawdy as he wants to be would somehow undermine our sympathy. But this production grasped certain nettles more confidently than any of the half-dozen other productions of this play I’ve seen. Most importantly, it refused to reduce the play by “solving” its core problems. The result is deeply thought-provoking, and very worth taking in, ideally more than once.

I look forward to doing so.

Measure For Measure plays at the Tom Patterson Theatre through September 21st.