- The Washington Times - Monday, January 23, 2006

Searching for parking near the Folger Shakespeare Library proved more difficult than usual on Sunday evening, press night for the Folger Theatre’s new production of the Bard’s “Measure for Measure.”

Not only had heavy construction near the Supreme Court building snarled the usual approach routes and eliminated the best spaces. Threading through Capitol Hill’s misty streets, one also had to be mindful of small, well-behaved clumps of pro-life demonstrators, part of a vanguard gathering for a rain-dampened candlelit vigil before yesterday’s 33rd annual March for Life.

This ongoing and very real street theater just two blocks from the Folger served as a poignant backdrop for Shakespeare’s sometimes muddled comedy. Its labyrinthine plot revolves around the tangle of contradictions arising when those who piously legislate morality for others arrogantly deny their own moral failings.

“Measure for Measure” charts the history of Angelo, a deputy to the Duke of Vienna. The Duke decides to take a sabbatical, putting the dour Angelo in charge of enforcing the city’s existing moral codes — which are rarely ever honored. Unfortunately, Angelo’s zeal knows no bounds. When he discovers that young Claudio has impregnated his fiancee, Juliet, Angelo sentences him to death as an example, enforcing an existing law rarely honored in the past.

Any law gains moral force when all agree to observe it, including those who rule. Angelo, however, finds this problematic when he is petitioned by Isabella, a novice nun who also is Claudio’s sister. She begs Angelo to spare her brother, observing that Claudio is, after all, lawfully betrothed and behaving no differently from most Viennese in similar circumstances.

Smitten by Isabella, Angelo becomes a situational ethicist, promising to save Claudio in exchange for Isabella’s virginity. (We also learn that this moral beacon abandoned his own fiancee when her promised dowry was lost at sea.)

The Duke, disguised as a friar, comes through to save the day, but his own motives seem suspect, and Shakespeare’s play draws to an uncomfortable close with everyone feeling a little bit soiled.

In his director’s notes, Aaron Posner carefully alludes to the moral issues that have been on trial for more than 30 years just a block or two away. Fortunately, his direction proves remarkably free of the leftist platitudes so typical in contemporary theater. He wisely chooses to dwell instead on the collisions that arise when the legal and moral constructs necessary to support a modern civil society collide head-on with passionately held religious and political beliefs.

As to the Folger production, it’s a discordant amalgam of art-deco backdrops; bizarre, allusively symbolic costuming (Juliet in combat boots?); and occasionally ineffective musical interludes. Happily, it usually works. Also, the acting is first-rate, abetted by an inspired decision to cast minor characters and disguised principals as nearly life-size commedia dell’arte-style puppets.

Hat tips to Mark Zeisler as the scheming Duke, Ian Merrill Peakes as an ice-cold Angelo, and Karen Peakes as a feisty Isabella. She approaches her role as the equal of the more famous Portia from “The Merchant of Venice.” Applause as well to Tony Nam and Todd Scofield, who handled most of the puppets and their numerous voice-overs with hilarious efficiency.

Dramatically, “Measure for Measure” is not Shakespeare’s most gripping play. However, in an age when dueling visions of moral absolutism compete violently in the marketplace of ideas, the Folger production treats us to an increasingly rare kind of theatrical evening, one that confronts a compelling dilemma by challenging audience members to debate their own certainties as they stream out from the theater and into the darkness unfolding before them.

***

WHAT: William Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”

WHERE: Folger Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol St SE.

WHEN:Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 7 p.m. Sunday. Matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. No performances tonight, Friday, Jan. 31, Feb. 7 and the evening of Feb. 19. Through Feb. 26.

TICKETS: $30 to 49.

PHONE: 202/544-7077

WEB SITE: www.folger.edu/whatson.cfm

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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