William Shakespeare borrowed his title Measure for Measure from the Book of Matthew: “Judge not, that ye be not judged,” intones Jesus, “and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” (A worrying maxim for any drama critic.) Despite the Good Lord’s advice, one can’t really acquit Theatre for a New Audience’s production of Shakespeare’s problem play.
Set in an imagined Vienna, the drama concerns a duke (Jefferson Mays) who abdicates authority to hard-liner Angelo (Rocco Sisto). Angelo upholds the law brutally, condemning Claudio (LeRoy McClain) to death for impregnating his fiancée. When honest Isabella (Elisabeth Waterston) comes to plead for her brother’s life, Angelo feels himself overtaken with unaccustomed lust and promises to free Claudio should Isabella indulge his desires.
Director Arin Arbus never really communicates the play’s cruelty or salaciousness, though she offers a nicely cynical take on its too tidy ending. The actors speak clearly and communicate effectively, but too often the play seems to resemble the (rather inaccurate) description of Angelo: “A man whose blood/Is very snow-broth; one who never feels/The wanton stings and motions of the sense.” This is, admittedly, one of Shakespeare’s more heartless plays, but it does not benefit from being staged with so little feeling.
The accomplished Sisto and Mays each have their moments, and Waterston is rigorous in portraying Isabella’s unappealing obduracy. In a scene in which Claudio pleads with Isabella to succumb, McClain gives a visceral and poignant performance. But Isabella’s dilemma never really compels, and the comic scenes play out as airily as so much lead. Arbus’s production is very earnest, very sober, and very little fun. As with Isabella, its uprightness is not necessarily a virtue.