Measure for Measure at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn explodes at you from every corner of the stage. The audience enters through the “brothel,” a winding hallway backstage draped in red velvet and decorated with carnival masks and sex toys. A band livens up the play with everything from background music to a bluegrass concert. A lucky few are ushered onstage to be seated in a makeshift café to watch a heartbroken character croon. Actors rush on and off the unique stage from every direction. And towards the end, as the Duke re-enters his city, shaking hands with his loyal subjects, everyone gets a Viennese flag to wave in a slightly jarring display of nationalism.
Theatre for a New Audience’s production of Measure for Measure is directed by Simon Godwin, who recently directed Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Godwin characterizes his Measure for Measure with these blurred lines between stage and reality – both the physical and the conceptual, as with the not-so-subtle political overtones which pack an extra wallop into the punch of this already poignant play.
The action revolves around the Duke (Jonathan Cake), the roguishly charming if not morally questionable leader of Vienna. He announces that he must leave Vienna, placing his deputy, Angelo, in charge while he is gone. Thomas Jay Ryan as Angelo strikes a remarkably Nixon-esque figure, and his incessant fear-mongering, stubborn conviction, and hatred of criticism certainly invites more modern political comparisons.
Perhaps the most chilling, and disturbingly compelling, element of Godwin’s Measure for Measure is the relationship between women and the law. In a single, graphic scene Godwin portrays a plight that so many 21st-century women have been prepared (or have reason) to fear: “My false o’erweighs your true,” hisses Angelo, demonstrating the power of an untouchable thug against a lone woman.
Meanwhile, the Duke slips undercover as a friar to poke around in the lowest levels of society – into which he, as the ruler, has allowed corruption to creep. As Angelo begins his reign of terror, cracking down on the symptoms of vice, the Duke searches for the causes. But are his intentions honorable? Are they selfish, and the Duke no better than the slimy politician he’s trying to bring down? Godwin asks the audience to decide, but his director’s influence more than allows for a complex duality to develop in each character – from the habit-clad, pure-white Isabella (Cara Ricketts) to the bawd-turned-executioner Pompey (Christopher Michael McFarland).
Measure for Measure has many of the trademarks of Shakespearean comedies: mix-ups, disguises, secret loves, and misunderstandings galore. But Godwin’s staging of the play reveals just how much darkness exists in this world as well. Prison bars and cages feature heavily in the scenery, as well as a cold, industrial government office, and a bloody, sloshing sack representing a severed head marks how closely both Shakespeare and Godwin’s comedy tows the line of the deadly and macabre.
This production of Measure for Measure has a little bit of everything. The physical spaces of Vienna created by this company are a tantalizing mix of dangerous and erotic, and the actors are so well cast that you lose yourself entirely in their stories. And even if you aren’t looking for political commentary as delivered by Shakespeare this summer, the sheer talent of this cast is worth a trip to Brooklyn. Simon Godwin and Theatre for a New Audience present a theater experience that you won’t want to miss.