All words: Riley Croghan
Most people familiar with Shakespeare know well enough that, despite your middle school impression that his plays were probably bougey, dreary romantic sap, his writing is absolutely stuffed with filth. It wasn’t for nothing that Thomas Bowdler got himself whipped up in such a moral panic frenzy about the plays that he wound up lending his name to ham-fisted censorship. There may come a moment, though, in watching Shakespeare Theater Company’s “Measure for Measure” that you reach a new appreciation for how bawdy the bard could be. For me, that came only a few moments in to a musical number involving a highly acrobatic strip-tease from two nuns.
Shakespeare’s plays have, of course, all been widely interpreted and adapted, from performing highly-censored “family” versions to setting “The Tempest” in outer space. This is such a common tactic that, much like opening a new fusion restaurant among the horde that already exist, the success of the effort hinges entirely upon how well two concepts can be married that may seem entirely foreign to each other but that, once you’ve had a taste, you can’t imagine apart.
So, yes, it was impossible to not feel a bit weary upon learning that the central conceit of STC’s production would be to spice up Shakespeare with a dash of 1930’s fascism, but “Measure for Measure” happens to be exactly the play where this can be deftly accomplished. The play’s central extremist government, attempting to bring morality to a morally-corrupt populace by brute force, is adapted fluidly and seamlessly into pre-Third Reich Vienna. Accepting that the men carrying out these cruel, hypothetical measures are dressed in black combat gear and red armbands hardly requires a suspension of disbelief, even if they happen to do so while speaking in iambic pentameter.
Where the production really shines, though, is in establishing the sort of rollicking sexual deviancy that that fascist government is reacting to. Don’t get me wrong, it’s hard (sorry) to get too deep (sorry) into any of Shakespeare’s plays without rubbing up against (sorry, sorry) a few dozen dick jokes. But the central moral dilemma of the play—lovers Claudio and Juliet face extreme punishment for becoming pregnant while essentially “only” common-law married—just doesn’t cause the same sort of moral panic as it used to. STC raises the stakes significantly by further sexualizing an already bawdy show. Any thoughts that, hey, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if the novice not-quite-yet-a-nun Isabella slept with the power crazy Angelo in order to save her brother’s life, are at least put into question when we see the sort of licentious naughty-nun fantasies Angelo allows to overcome him.
This bawdiness is quite firmly established, in fact, before the play even begins. With the house lights still up and the audience still shuffling in, the stage bustles with a cabaret performance being attended and performed by some of the play’s supporting characters. The prologue establishes some general themes and characters—helpfully, a black-clad Mariana appears as a mournful torch singer and then proceeds to haunt the background of the first act, making it feel much less out-of-nowhere when she becomes vital to the plot upon finally showing up in Act 2.
But the largest success of this cabaret is in presenting a sort of sexual deviancy that goes beyond the level of seediness that may have scandalized 1930’s Vienna; it’s the sort that might make you, in 2013, squirm a bit if you were watching it with your parents in the same room. The nun strip tease, the easy exchange of kisses and gropes between any pairing of genders, and, yes, a cross-dresser’s gentle dabbing of her lips after a simulated blowjob in the eaves: all serve essentially the same purpose as the wildly flagrant cursing on HBO’s “Deadwood”—maybe not historically accurate, but effective in rustling a modern audience’s sensibilities.
“Measure for Measure” runs through October 27 at the Lansburgh Theater. $40-$100. Note that discounted $18 tickets are released Tuesdays at 12 pm for patrons ages 35 and younger. Read our interview with Cameron Folmar, the production’s Lucio, right over here.