Shakespeare in the Park is always magical. The sky at dusk, the trees bending in the breeze, the lingering notes of a bird’s song — all that nature stuff. Just the same, when the play at hand is as notoriously kinky as “Measure for Measure” (which may be the one “problem play” that everyone secretly wants to solve), the magic of the experience would be much enhanced by an inventive approach to the challenging problems the play presents. And David Esbjornson’s skilled but cautious production doesn’t quite cut it.
Vienna is going to hell in a handbasket when the play opens. The plague is raging. The city’s brothels and gambling dens are jumping. And the only place where a virgin intacta might yet be found is a convent.
Staging all this licentiousness is the fun part for a director, and Esbjornson (“Driving Miss Daisy”) exercises his right by calling up some coal-black horned demons from the depths of hell to cavort unseen among the pimps and whores plying their trade in the brothels. Elizabeth Hope Clancy’s rubberized body suits and Charles LaPointe’s sculpted red wigs contribute more visual mischief to the surreal scene-setting, and liberal use is made of a bed that pops up from beneath the stage to become the clever centerpiece of Scott Pask’s set.
Despite their outlandish garb and the devils among them, the well-cast (and wonderfully well-spoken) denizens of these lower depths conduct themselves in the time-honored tradition of all Shakespearean clowns and fools.
Tonya Pinkins — a regal Countess in “All’s Well That Ends Well,” the companion piece in this season’s rotating rep — abandons herself here to the bawdy role of Mistress Overdone. As flamboyant braggart Lucio, Reg Rogers serves up a slightly more restrained version of Parolles, the chuckling scoundrel he plays in “All’s Well.” And Carson Elrod (“Wedding Crashers”), who performed a small if eye-catching turn as a quick-witted soldier in “All’s Well,” comes into his own playing Pompey as a quick-witted pimp who tosses out Elizabethan wisecracks and double entendres in a snarky punk style that makes people want to strangle him.
But while all these juicy comic bits are being thrown to the groundlings to keep us happy, little attention is being paid to the play’s central question of how the rule-book laws of justice and morality can be fairly applied to the libertine citizens of a decadent society. Or to the deeper problem of how a ruler might make amends for his own lax administration and regain control over the state he let fall into complete corruption.
When first met, the Duke of Vienna (Lorenzo Pisoni) is literally in bed with those horned devils, implying that the Duke has somehow been complicit in the decline of his own city. But while the youthful Pisoni makes a convincing show of horror at the decadence into which his subjects have sunk — to the point of fleeing the palace in monk’s disguise and leaving the administration of the city to his deputy Angelo (Michael Hayden) — his clean-cut and personable Duke indicates no sense of responsibility and no remorse for the mess he’s made.
Like the Duke, Angelo has been cast on the youthful side, leaving Hayden with no meaningful history to draw on. As the religious zealot who has been deputized to clean up the city in the Duke’s absence, Angelo ignores whatever serious crimes might be afoot and narrows his focus, as religious zealots tend to do, to moral transgressions that are on the books as crimes. After shutting down the brothels, he condemns a young nobleman named Claudio (Andre Holland) to death for fornication, and would surely continue on his moral rampage if he were not struck with lust for Claudio’s sister, Isabella (Danai Gurira), a virtuous nun. Responding to Isabella’s inflexible piety (and the fierceness of Gurira’s portrayal of that godly girl), Hayden finally has his big moment playing Angelo’s struggle with his own tormented conscience.
A rather bland Bertram in “All’s Well,” Holland is better cast and wholly sympathetic as the hapless Claudio, and Kristen Connelly is pure sweetness as his heavily pregnant intended bride. But while their youth suits their rash “crime,” the sins of the Duke and his deputy should come from the foolish mistakes of mature men who have forgotten what it means to be young.