“The law hath slept,” declares the Duke of Vienna, but he himself hasn’t been doing so well in that department—at least not according to David Esbjornson’s production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (Delacorte Theater, Central Park, in rep with All’s Well That Ends Well). For Esbjornson, this play about mercy and justice, suffused with urban lust and lewdness, starts with a nightmare: While ominous music sounds, the Duke (Lorenzo Pisoni) lies writhing on a huge bed center stage, tormented by black-garbed demons, tailed and horned. For a moment, till the demons slink off and the Duke wakes up, you may think you’ve stumbled into a slightly retro version of the Hell number from The Book of Mormon.
Esbjornson’s quirky prologue makes sense, in an outré way: Measure for Measure is itself a kind of nightmare, a fairy tale shot through with sex and cruelty, its bittersweet happy ending so elaborately contrived that it provokes almost as deep a sense of wrong as the drama’s outrageous premise. Directors and commentators have beaten their heads against it for over a century, as have, latterly, playwrights and composers. I’m among the many who’ve given way to the temptation to write an alternative treatment of its events; my predecessors in that realm include eminences like Brecht and Richard Wagner. Shakespeare’s story tells of a duke who disguises himself as a friar to entrap his hypocritical deputy, Angelo (Michael Hayden), abetted by a novice nun, Isabella (Danai Gurira), who pretends to give in to the deputy’s desires in order to save her brother, Claudio (André Holland), from execution. Some have viewed this as a Christian parable of submission and forgiveness; a countering opinion comes from critics like the late Jan Kott, who declared roundly, “The Duke is a pimp. Isabella is a whore.”
The play’s sordidness and its morally troubling recalcitrance are made worse by its being, maddeningly, a masterpiece. Seemingly preoccupied with death, and with all the less happy consequences of fornication, from unwanted pregnancy to syphilitic dementia, it pours these obsessions into some of the richest poetry, and some of the spiciest prose, in all of Shakespeare. Nobody can totally love Measure for Measure—it’s not easy to love a play in which the gentlest description of the sexual act is “groping for trout in a peculiar river”—but no one who loves great playwriting can fail to be fascinated by it. Infuriating and frustrating, it’s also inescapable, a play that never feels quite right, but that you can’t live without.
Esbjornson’s production wins much of its credit by frankly declaring its inability to make the crazy pieces of this Shakespearean puzzle fit into a unified picture. Pisoni’s Duke and Hayden’s Angelo, clad by costume designer Elizabeth Hope Clancy in outfits that look vaguely contemporary, are modern not-quite-mad men, hesitant, emotionally febrile, filling their verse with naturalistic pauses and shifts of tone. Holland’s Claudio and Gurira’s Isabella, in contrast, tend to a 19th-century declamatory style, finding something like truth only in their quieter moments. (The tone of high expostulation sits uncomfortably on Gurira, who tends to squeeze her upper register at emotional peaks.)
Dakin Matthews, a crisply compassionate Provost, and John Cullum, harried but sage as the courtly judge Escalus (costumed by Clancy as Holbein’s Sir Thomas More), employ a classic Shakespearean style, while the bawd, Mistress Overdone (Tonya Pinkins), and her barman-assistant, Pompey (Carson Elrod), come off as pure 18th-century figures, straight out of Fielding or Fanny Hill. Reg Rogers, sporting one of Groucho Marx’s leftover mustaches, renders the clownish aristocrat Lucio as something from a 1920s vaudeville sketch captured on Vitaphone, and Lucas Caleb Rooney, as the unregenerate prisoner Barnardine, suggests a Saturday Night Live spoof on Oz. Even John Gromada’s incidental score, which draws the bulk of its inspiration from Renaissance church music, slides into something like heavy metal for the tavern and street scenes, then up again into the ecclesiastical. When the Duke visits Angelo’s jilted fiancée, Mariana (Annie Parisse), the song she listens to isn’t the one specified in Shakespeare’s text, “Take, o take those lips away,” but Gromada’s setting of a psalm text from the King James Bible.
The jarring mixture of periods and styles often proves effective: Measure for Measure seems to have been born to jar. Much about it was equivocal even for Shakespeare’s audience, like its setting: Vienna, a city that to the Elizabethan mind was both Italian and not Italian (and that has subsequently served as a center for equivocation from the time of Metternich to that of The Third Man). Officially, there were no nuns in Protestant England, where Catholicism was outlawed, so that the concept of a novice nun compelled to have sex under duress was less shockingly brutal than erotically titillating—but that was the official outlook. In reality, a lot of the population was still secretly or latently Catholic, a group that may have included Shakespeare himself.
From our vantage point, the Duke’s view of sex seems rather prim and neocon: Angelo’s repressive measures are unjustly cruel, particularly where Claudio is concerned, but some repression was called for, since loose sexual behavior had gotten too widespread and excessive. It’s one of the many reasons that make scholars, and directors, view the Duke as a dubious character. Yet historically, the struggle to maintain order in the newly urbanized London of Shakespeare’s time was more akin to Gold Rush San Francisco or New York of the Tenderloin era than to one of today’s organized cities.
Esbjornson solves our dilemma by making the Duke, like Claudio, youthfully callow. Pisoni, charmingly uncertain, is a boyish Duke who hasn’t fully learned yet how to assert his power. It explains why he, like his older “cousin” Angelo, would be attracted to Gurira’s intense, strong-willed forthrightness: The tension between the two acting styles supplies the erotic stimulus, putting the Duke’s ornate trickery into perspective as a counterweight to Angelo’s outright brutality—measure for measure. Not all of Esbjornson’s notions work so well. Rogers’s hammy artificiality, here as in All’s Well, proves more of a hindrance to sense than a stimulus to humor; so does Esbjornson’s treatment of the Duke’s disguise as a mere sight gag (the same one, involving spectacles, used last month at the climax of David Ives’s The School for Lies). There have been productions in which the play’s contentious components seemed more cohesive. But the evening catches the work’s force, its gutsiness, and the morally indigestible provocations that keep it constantly fresh. Among Shakespeare’s works, it’s everybody’s favorite nightmare.