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Review - Measure For Measure: Nasty Habits

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Former 90s club kids nostalgic for theme nights at Limelight should get a kick out of director David Esbjornson's frequently flashy and enjoyable mounting of Shakespeare's Measure For Measure; a production where, under a simple, but austere cathedral-like setting, the antics straddle the line between the play's original early 1600s Viennese setting and a more contemporary techno-fetish club.

This is Part II of Shakespeare in the Park's summer of comedies about unlikeable people doing unattractive things that result in "happy endings" where characters are forced into unwanted marriages. Whereas Daniel Sullivan's staging of All's Well That Ends Well, smoothes out the unpleasantness with light comedy and the final traces of Edwardian elegance, here the director teases us with a concept that looks like we'll be having some fun digging into hedonistic subtext. But gradually the concept seems tossed and we're left with a main plot played well, but rather conventionally, while the subplot comics are having a bawdy ball.

Shakespeare's text begins with Vincentio (Lorenzo Pisoni), Duke of the plague-ravaged city, deciding to take some extended time off and place governing in the hands of his strict moralist deputy, Angelo (Michael Hayden). He is to be assisted by the ancient Lord Escalus (a fine John Cullum in a thankless role). But before that occurs, Esbjornson creates a nightmarish motivation. As a fog of smoke approaches the bed placed center stage, actors appear wearing black, skin-tight devil costumes. One of the emotionless demons rips off the bed sheet to reveal an orgy of tangled, decaying bodies atop the horrified Duke. This dream could suggest a guilty conscious or dark longings, but the reason for the prologue is unclear because even though the demons do appear again, it's in no direct association with Vincentio. By the second act they seem to have been forgotten until the company takes bows to a certain Rolling Stones hit that suggests their inclusion was part of a major theme.

In any case, Angelo believes it's the loose morals of the city that has sent the plague and orders a crackdown on any form of vice, which includes enforcing a commonly ignoRed Law forbidding sex outside of marriage. When Claudio (Andre Holland) gets sentenced to death for getting his fiancé Juliet (Kristen Connolly) pregnant, his sister Isabella (Danai Gurira), who is about to enter a nunnery, pleads for his mercy.

Angelo, who was engaged to be married until his bride-to-be's dowry was lost, probably hasn't enjoyed pleasures of the flesh in quite some time and offers to allow Claudio to live in exchange for Isabella's virginity, knowing her word would never be believed against his if she accuses him of immorality. Meanwhile Vincentio, disguised as a friar, has not only gotten himself involved but has developed an attraction to Isabella himself, and plots to assist her as a means of winning her.

Hayden does a fine job of being subtly authoritative and Gurira skillfully plays Isabella's conflicted soul as she tries to defend herself against an immoral act by committing one herself. Esbjornson, however, has Pisoni playing Vincentio as being boyishly charming and merry, a confusingly uncomplicated choice, considering the way the production began.

The comical denizens of Mistress Overdone's bawdy house appear more contemporary in manner than the main players and Elizabeth Hope Clancy dresses them in costumes that do indeed look like costumes. As the broadly played proprietress, the absurdly wigged and gowned Tonya Pinkins can pass as a female impersonator. Carson Elrod has a puckish charm playing the pimp Pompey with a punk rocker attitude and does a terrific job in a scene where he does some extended playing with the audience. Reg Rogers, as usual, also gives a funny turn as the sleazy sad sack, Lucio.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Danai Gurira and Michael Hayden; Bottom: Tonya Pinkins and Carson Elrod.

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