Jared Michael Brown, Sarah Newhouse, and Johnnie McQuarley in the ASP production of Measure for Measure.
Jared Michael Brown, Sarah Newhouse, and Johnnie McQuarley in the ASP production of Measure for Measure.
(© Stratton McCrady Photography)

The closing of shutters to blot out the sunlight signaled the start of a matinee performance of the Bard's Measure for Measure, presented by Actors' Shakespeare Project, a fitting image for one of Shakespeare's darkest works. With only eight actors to cover the many roles, and some cuts to the script, ASP has mounted a sleek, telling performance of the work that is often described as Shakespeare's most problematic play.

The themes that drive the plot include weak leadership, corruption, and the hypocrisy of rulers who uphold the law for others, but trample it themselves. The play is set in Vienna, pictured here as a mid-20th-century city with the actors in modern dress, amid the detritus of discarded trash strewn over the urban landscape. Duke Vincentio (Michael Forden Walker) is determined to leave town and hand over the reins of his office to his upright deputy, Angelo (Maurice Emmanuel Parent), assisted by the faithful Escalus (Thomas Grenon). Angelo is charged with enforcing the laws that the Duke has let slide over the years. However, the Duke determines to disguise himself as a Friar and lurk nearby, to watch the results of the arrangement.

Angelo is so strict with the laws against sin and fornication that he not only orders the whorehouses torn down, but sentences young Claudio (Jared Michael Brown) to death for getting his fiancée with child. Angelo shows no mercy, but wavers when the lovely young Isabella (Adrianna Mitchell), a virgin about to join a religious sisterhood, pleads for her brother's life. In a fit of passion, Angelo offers to pardon Claudio if Isabelle will surrender her body to him, a premise she abhors.

As the complex plot unfurls, the true nature of each character is revealed with some troubling insights. The Duke thinks nothing of letting others suffer while he manipulates the actions that eventually lead to strange but better outcomes. Angelo becomes more and more corrupt as he claims his prize — unaware that his discarded fiancée, Mariana, has been substituted for Isabella — but reneges on his promise. Isabella displays unbecoming traits of a holier-than-thou personality while proclaiming her love for her brother. Her turn-around is all the more suspect when Shakespeare ties up the complications in an untidy final scene.

Several of the actors play only one role, including Parent as the duplicitous Angelo and Mitchell as the innocent Isabella. Parent, one of the area's most versatile and accomplished actors, is riveting as Angelo in a characterization enhanced by the intense expression of his eyes, and the stiff carriage of his body. Mitchell is most effective in the softer scenes where her youth and beauty convey a goodness of heart, but too shrill when she lets her anger show.

Under the direction of Megan Sandberg-Zakian, the actors assigned to multiple roles handle them well, especially Johnnie McQuarley as three different clowns, including the foul-mouthed Lucio, and Lydia Barnett-Mulligan as four characters, contrasting the street-wise, jittery Pompey and the very pregnant Juliet, Claudio's beloved. Sarah Newhouse is accomplished in the quick changes of affect and costumes between Mistress Overdone, the sympathetic Provost, and the mysterious Mariana, while Brown runs the range from foolish as Elbow, the policeman who trips over his tongue, to a frightened Claudio, begging for his life to be spared.

Although the play has been billed as a comedy, perhaps because none of the major characters dies at the end, there is little to laugh at, even while the clowns are performing their shenanigans. In truth, the joke is on our civilization that has learned so little about the right way to govern over some 400 years since Shakespeare wrote this play. Corruption, hypocrisy, holding the law over the unlucky ones while favoring others. But really, what's so funny about ills that continue to afflict society?