Yes—this Shakespeare performance begins with strippers, as a pre-show cabaret flows seamlessly into the action of the play.
The prelude is a lively pastiche of 1930s Vienna, with a series of stylized interactions establishing subtext for the performance. Natascia Diaz shines with her impression of a drunk Edith Piaf long before she is introduced as Mariana, and a man who is soon revealed as the Duke (Kurt Rhoads) is seen giving into homosexual urges and subsequent rage. In addition to providing a juicy backstory for the characters, this prelude marks the first-ever solution to Washington audiences’ fatal allergy to seating themselves on time.
While the cast is a bit more reserved after the cabaret, the spectacle continues. A set design by Alexander Dodge punctuates the performance with prison bars and bookshelves that slide around in perfect symmetry to the original music of Adam Wernick. The design and music cohere in an evocative design that echoes the tension between the characters and their society’s rigid mores.
The Duke leaves the pious Angelo (Scott Parkinson) in charge of Vienna, thinking him a virtuous surrogate, but his unchecked obsession with rules leads him to tyranny, tearing down the suburbs of Vienna and sentencing Avery Clark’s bright-faced Claudio to death for getting his lover pregnant out of wedlock. When his sister Isabella (the earnest and powerful Miriam Silverman) goes to plead with Angelo, he assaults her. This visceral struggle is the high point of the performance, with a power play as arresting and relevant as that of its 20th-century descendant, Oleanna. After the assault, Isabel drives home her desperation with the iconic question,“To whom should I complain? Did I tell this, who would believe me?”
Nonetheless, Jonathan Munby’s production succeeds at raising the big questions of the play: What should we do when morality diverges from humanity, virtue from goodness? How can we be punished for doing what is natural? These tensions are not easily resolved, and linger on long after the curtain.
Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Measure for Measure begins with bawdy nuns and leaves you with powerful questions to ponder. With it’s polished (albeit predictable) performances and flawless spectacle of music and design, I call it a success.
Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare . Directed by Jonathan Munby . Featuring Miriam Silverman, Scott Parkinson, Kurt Rhoads, Avery Clark, J. Kenneth Campbell, Andrew Criss, , Katie deBuys, Natascia Diaz, Cameron Folmar, Dan Istrate, Naomi Jacobson, John Lescault, Hugh Nees, Ned Noyes, Jack Wetherall, S. Lewis Feemster, Jacqui Jarrold, Manu Kumasi, Michael Litchfield, Amber Mayberry, Jack Powers, Gracie Terzian and Jaysen Wright. Set Designer: Alexander Dodge . Costume Designe:r Linda Cho. Lighting Designer: Philip Rosenberg . Composer: Adam Wernick . Sound Designer: Walter Trarbach and Choreographer Daniel Pelzig . Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company . Reviewed by J. Robert Williams.