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Theatre in Review: Measure for Measure (The Public Theater)

Photo: Joan Marcus

Scholars often refer to Measure for Measure as one of William Shakespeare's "problem" plays, which is a nice way of saying they don't know what to make of it. Indeed, it functions as a kind of Rorschach test: There are so many ways of looking at it that each generation finds something new. In the eighties, its portrait of a Vienna ruled by a pious power structure lording it over an underworld of libertines served as a commentary on the culture wars of the religious right. (In such productions, many of the louche characters sported track marks and bruises that looked suspiciously like Kaposi sarcoma lesions.) More recently, its sexual harassment plot -- the heroine, Isabella, a postulant, is asked to trade her virginity for her brother's life -- has made it prone to #MeToo interpretations.

LA Williams' production for the Public's Mobile Unit, which takes Shakespeare around the city, performing at libraries, homeless shelters, and community centers, reveals another facet, offering a stark look at public servants for whom dishonesty and abuse of power are a way of life. As performed by a cast made up entirely of women of color, it would seem to be the last word in trendy concepts; instead, I think, it gets closer to the play's diamond-hard core than possibly any other I have seen. This is a drama filled with moral outrage, presented with an unsettlingly neutral gaze. Maybe it, not Twelfth Night, should have been subtitled Or What You Will.

As is typical of Mobile Unit productions, the script has been cut to a fast, intermissionless two hours, presented in relatively simple circumstances. Yu-Hsuan Chen's set is little more than a floor mat, and the show is performed with the house lights on. Asa Benally's funky, florid costumes are rather more elaborate, and for good reason: The action has been relocated to New Orleans in 1979. America's most wide-open city makes an appropriate setting for a play in which license and religiosity both run riot, and neither the righteous nor the rakes are what they seem.

The heart of this Measure for Measure is the conflict between competing systems of justice, only one of which is tempered with mercy. Before it is over, everyone in the play will have to consider exactly how much wrongdoing he or she is willing to tolerate -- and to forgive. Williams has assembled an exceptionally able company to guide us through the maze of plot and counterplot. Jasmine Batchelor, who made a strong impression a couple of months ago in Mothers at The Playwrights Realm, is stunning as Isabella, who, turning to Angelo, the deputy to the absent Duke of New Orleans, to beg for her brother's life, gets a rude surprise. (The Duke, disguised as a friar, roams the city, observing the action and intervening when he must.) Her sibling has been sentenced to death for getting his lover pregnant, and surely clemency is in order: Indeed, she learns, it is -- if she agrees to sleep with Angelo.

Batchelor will make you feel every iota of Isabella's cold fury at this obvious injustice, as well as the shock she feels when Claudio, her brother, wonders if she might not take the deal. As it happens, for all her righteousness, she isn't above playing her part in a seamy nighttime seduction plot, in which, undercover, she gets swapped out for Mariana, Angelo's cast-off lover. Isabella is a devilishly difficult role -- Meryl Streep had an early-career hit with it -- and Batchelor succeeds by embracing the character's contradictions and running with them, full throttle. She gives Williams' production a solid center, helping to highlight the moral paradoxes that constitute the plot.

Other standouts in this energetic, well-spoken cast include Adrian Kiser, whose Angelo is a model of propriety as only the deeply hypocritical can be, and Grace Porter, who scrubs the Duke of any neurotic or manipulative tendencies -- popular choices these days -- to make him a purposeful observer of his fellow citizens. I also liked Latonia Phipps as Mistress Overdone, an accomplished sinner, and Mariana, who is most profoundly sinned against. As Lucio, leader of the play's cast of bawds and boozers, Toccarra Cash could work on her diction a bit, but she lands her laughs so reliably that it is difficult to complain; the scenes in which Lucio mouths off, slandering the disguised Duke to his face, often seem like labored comic routines; not here, thanks to Cash's solid comic delivery.

Interestingly, Williams doesn't try to justify or explain the climactic confrontation, in which justice is administered, however roughly, and a sort of order is restored. Nobody gets out of this play with his or her soul unstained, and all must learn to make the best of the moral bargains they have made. It must make for some fascinating post-show conversations, especially among audience members who have themselves been victimized by a corrupt, hypocritical power structure. This production can be enjoyed on its own terms, and it would also make an excellent introduction to Measure for Measure for any young person of your acquaintance. -- David Barbour

(25 November 2019)

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