Theater review by Diane Snyder
Simon Godwin’s astute Measure for Measure rarely lets us forget that Shakespeare's play is a comedy. But its virtues don’t end there. This tale of justice, in which the word mercy appears 17 times, serves as a benevolent reminder of the perilous state of a society devoid of forgiveness, and a haunting exploration of what can happen when morality becomes law and rulers who don’t know how to govern end up in charge.
One such ruler is Duke Vincentio (Jonathan Cake), depicted in this modern-dress production as a well-meaning but ineffectual partyer trying to straighten up. He pretends to leave Vienna but sticks around in disguise, putting in charge the uncompromising Angelo (Thomas Jay Ryan), who shuts down brothels and sentences a fornicator to death. When the condemned man’s virginal sister Isabella (Cara Ricketts), in training to be a nun, begs Angelo to soften the punishment, he agrees to do so only if she gives herself to him.
This is dark stuff, but Godwin keeps the proceedings playful. Before taking our seats, we walk through Mistress Overdone’s brothel, complete with sex toys and workers; later, we laugh in the face of a potential execution. But there’s no shortage of compassion. Playing the reborn Duke as a devout reformer, Cake navigates the play’s rough waters heartily. The fiery Ricketts makes Isabella’s anguish soulfully real. And Ryan crafts a cunning portrait of a despot coldly certain of his infallibility. Watching the once-mighty Angelo reduced to a quivering mass is as harrowing as it is satisfying. In an age of outrage, this revelatory Measure for Measure is a cry for hope and reconciliation.
Theatre for a New Audience (). By William Shakespeare. Directed by Simon Godwin. With Jonathan Cake, Cara Ricketts, Thomas Jay Ryan. Running time: 2hrs 45mins. One intermission. Through July 16.