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Review: In ‘Measure for Measure,’ Desperately Seeking Solutions in a Problem Play

That it is being enforced now is the result of a peculiar governing gambit by the ruling Duke. Having ignored the increasing debauchery of his city for so long, and being bent a bit toward debauchery himself, he figures that the only way to restore moral order is to take a vacation, deputizing the strait-laced Angelo to repair things in his absence.


Jonathan Cake and January LaVoy in the play.

Julieta Cervantes for The New York Times

Shakespeare paints Angelo as phlegmatic to the point of frigidity: He “scarce confesses that his blood flows” and “when he makes water, his urine is congealed ice.” As played atypically but successfully by the Off Broadway stalwart Thomas Jay Ryan he is also a prissy, sour desk jockey, the kind you might work with for years and be glad to know nothing about. Still, something in Isabella stirs and unnerves him, and he makes this offer: If she will yield her virginity to him, he will pardon her brother.

Isabella is of course appalled, and tries to argue him out of the proposition. But she, too, is an odd bird, so invested in her virtue that it becomes a form of stinginess. “More than our brother is our chastity,” she says plurally, leaving Claudio to his fate.

Cara Ricketts, a young star of Canada’s Stratford Festival now making a smashing American debut, does not stint on the superiority. But she brings to the role a charisma of moral certainty — not to mention a beautifully clear reading of the verse — that renders the character almost erotic in her withholding. She thus sets up, better than many an Isabella, the surprise ending, in which that certainty maintains its full magnetism even as it flips its polarities.

Not that the ending is otherwise convincing. As engineered by the Duke, who no sooner leaves Vienna than he returns in disguise to watch his plan unfold, the second half of the play undercuts with its silliness the seriousness of what came before. At the end of Act III (which in this production falls just before the intermission) the Duke sets in motion the famous “bed trick” that will resolve the plot, just as it does in “All’s Well That Ends Well” and a thousand ancient comedies.

How such a hoary contrivance is meant to support a tone of gravity is anybody’s guess — and certainly bardolaters have labored hard to justify the Duke’s preference for letting events approach disaster instead of pulling the plug on his weird experiment. Mr. Godwin tries to finesse the problem by emphasizing from the start the Duke’s own instability. (In the first of the production’s modernizations, we meet him as he shoots up a syringeful of heroin.)And in casting Jonathan Cake in the role, he unconvincingly suggests the excuse of youthfulness. Mr. Cake, who looks a lot like Justin Trudeau, reads far younger than his deputy; among the production’s few textual alterations, the line about “19 zodiacs” has been changed to 14.

Despite Mr. Cake’s finesse, this workaround doesn’t work; there is probably no cure for the play’s tonal whiplash. One must accept its absurd turns, along with the clangorous intrusions of Mistress Overdone and her gang of whorehouse rowdies, in the way one accepts the givens of science fiction. Don’t question; enjoy the results.

Yet I’m not convinced that a production of “Measure for Measure” should call extra attention to those givens. Mr. Godwin, who directed the Roundabout’s overeager “Cherry Orchard” last season, accouters his staging with a hodgepodge of contemporary Shakespearean production clichés apparently designed to render the play more approachable. A few work. The Duke’s steadier counselor, Escalus, is here Escala: a smart January LaVoy doing lady executive. An unmoored song in the original is now sung by a character whom it befits, in the style of a coffeehouse diva.

Other flourishes seem tired. Except for Isabella, the characters wear contemporary clothes, from business suits for the bureaucrats to leftover “Cabaret” costumes for Mistress Overdone. The accents are similarly all over the map: Russia, India, England, the Bronx. As is now de rigueur, audience participation is enlisted for the comic and musical moments.

But the biggest audience participation gesture is involuntary. Theatergoers enter the auditorium not through the usual doors but from a lower level, passing through a series of corridors designated as Mistress Overdone’s brothel. (The set and costume designer is Paul Wills.) Here you will encounter, among other things, mild writhing in a simulated S-and-M chamber and an exhibit of sex toys including a Trump-head dildo.

Still, there is something inane about all of this, as well as beside the point. If a contemporary audience needs priming for a story about miscarried justice and sexual harassment, all the louche indicating and particolor condoms in the world won’t help.

Happily, the audience does not in fact need such priming. What makes sense in “Measure for Measure” makes gorgeous sense here, thanks especially to Ms. Ricketts and Mr. Ryan. And, who knows, maybe Mr. Godwin’s extratextual paraphernalia actually help by contrast. “Best men are moulded out of faults,” a character tells us. “And, for the most, become much more the better for being a little bad.” Perhaps the same is true of plays.

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