by Juliet Moser
A high backed chair, all straight lines and black, beetle-shiny surface, is topped with a blood-red cushion. Standing at attention center stage and highlighted by a single overhead light, the chair solemnly greets patrons of the Folger Theatre. Thick black columns etched with arching whorls frame the stage. The title of Folger’s latest offering, Measure for Measure, is projected on a panel above the stage. As soon as the lights go down, Matthew 7:12 – commonly known as the Golden Rule – appears: “Judge not, that ye be judged. For what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete , it shall be measured to you again.” Foreshadowing the mistreatment about to ensue, director Aaron Posner, winner of the 2005 Helen Hayes award for Outstanding Director for last season’s The Two Gentleman of Verona, opens the show reminding audiences how they are supposed to behave. Yet the main characters of his production ignore this biblical advice, using and abusing one another as pawns in a games played for personal gain.
The play begins with a simple deception: the Duke of Vienna (a powerful portrayal by Mark Zeisler), concerned about the morality of his city, takes a leave of absence and grants his cousin Angelo (Ian Merrill Peakes) ruling power. However, the Duke never leaves Vienna, instead disguising himself as a friar to move about his subjects with ease. Flush with power, Angelo immediately imposes the strictest moral standards on the city, condemning Claudio to death for impregnating his bride-to-be, Juliet, before actually making her his bride. “It is one thing to be tempted, Escalus. It is another to fall,” sniffs Angelo.
Ah, but hypocrisy reigns, for the pious Angelo is overcome with desire for the soon-to-be cloistered sister of Claudio, Isabella (Karen Peakes), who comes to plead for her brother’s life. Angelo offers her a devil’s bargain – Isabella’s virginity for her brother’s life. And so begins Shakespeare’s tale of intersecting lives, luck, and deceitful manipulation. While Measure for Measure is categorized as one of Shakespeare’s comedies, the play touches on many dark, serious themes. Coincidentally, the Folger production runs the same time as Stephen Wadsworth’s new translation of Moliere’s Don Juan, playing downtown at the Shakespeare Theatre. (Wadsworth, incidentally, translated the Folger’s next show, Pierre de Marivaux’s The Game of Love and Chance.)
Both Don Juan and Measure for Measure contain light, tension-reliving moments of humor, and yet the after effect of the show contributes to a mood of somber reflection, not high spirits.
One cannot help but to notice the relevancy of these venerable shows that prod the issue of religious hypocrisy. Posner runs a tight ship, balancing the bawdy humor of prostitutes with the touching last words between a brother and sister. He brings back puppet designer Aaron Cromie (first working together on Two Gentleman), this time to greater effect. Tony Nam and Todd Scofield maneuver meticulously-crafted puppets in smaller roles throughout the play, and their deft delivery keeping the puppets from becoming caricatures. The best use of a puppet as another character is by the Duke, allowing him to mask and unmask with ease. Costume designer Devon Painter works with meticulous tailoring and luxurious fabrics, save for Isabella, dressed in a bizarrely-designed sheath, resplendent with a dual use arm covering/makeshift wimple.
Similarly, in an odd decision, Painter chose to shod all the characters incongruently modern shoes, from the Provost’s motorcycle boots to Isabella’s urban flats. But these incongruities do not tarnish the production, marked by superb acting. The always reliable Ian Merrill Peakes manages to convey an entire story with a single gesture, and is the very portrait of a broken man at the end of the play, properly browbeaten by the Duke. Zeisler’s lithe, almost sexual portrayal of the Duke is the glue that holds the show together. Karen Peakes (yes, spouse of the other Peakes) doesn’t display the same energy she did in Two Gentleman, but delivers as a solid performance as the ill-fortuned Isabelle. The clever lighting of John Hoey illuminates all of these actors on Daniel Conway’s deceptively simple set. Yes, deceit and betrayal reign supreme on the Hill, but at least for the next few weeks, we know that it all resolves itself at the end and doesn’t cost the taxpayers a dime.
Folger Theatre Folger Shakespeare Library 201 East Capitol Street, SE Washington, DC 20003 Metro: Capitol South (blue/orange lines)