Currently wrapping up a tour of the U.S., Measure for Measure is Mark Rylance's final show with the Globe as its artistic director. In a delightful comic performance, this accomplished actor has taken one of the most confounding characters in the Shakespeare canon, Duke Vincentio, and endowed him with a humanity and vulnerability that makes the play as a whole work very well. Vincentio is neither calculatingly manipulative nor overly wise, which are the two most frequent interpretations of the role; instead, Rylance plays him as a well-meaning but hilariously inept fool who keeps getting in over his head and comes up with all sorts of spur-of-the-moment schemes just to stay above water.
Rylance stutters and mumbles many of his lines to good effect, and it's entirely believable that the Duke has yielded his power to his strict and pious deputy, Angelo (Liam Brennan). It's obvious that Vincentio would have a very hard time enforcing the moral laws that, he bemoans, have become "more mock'd than fear'd." It's also credible that he'd want to stick around to see the results of this experiment, and his disguise as a friar provides him with just such an opportunity -- as well as abundant laughs for the audience.
Of course, things don't go quite as smoothly as Vincentio anticipated. Angelo proves much harsher than anyone could have imagined, sentencing the young Claudio (David Sturzaker) to death for impregnating his intended bride, Juliet (David Hartley), prior to marriage. Claudio's sister, Isabella (Edward Hogg), pleads with Angelo for her brother's life, inciting in him a lust that he didn't know he possessed. He offers to spare Claudio if Isabella, who is about to become a nun, will give up her virginity to him. Vincentio, still disguised as a friar, attempts to put things right but does so in a bumbling, inefficient manner that threatens to thwart his noble intentions.
The ensemble is a joy to watch. Brennan, speaking with a charming Scottish accent, manages to make Angelo sympathetic despite the evil that takes root in his heart. His speech to the audience wherein he wrestles with his ethical dilemma is quietly moving, his awkward attempt to seduce Isabella is more amusing than terrifying, and his contrition when his sins are revealed seems genuine. Hogg has an elegant bearing and reserved manner appropriate to Isabella, yet the character's words are sharply spoken, and the meaningful looks she gives to others convey volumes. The comic roles of Lucio (Colin Hurley), Pompey (John Dougall), Constable Elbow (Roger Watkins), and Mistress Overdone (Peter Shorey) are played broadly but are perfectly pitched to the tone of the production.
The play is performed on a long, wooden thrust stage with the audience seated in a three-quarter round configuration, and this allows for plenty of interplay between the cast and the spectators. Even before the show begins, the actors are on stage, getting into costume and make-up and chatting informally with those in attendance. Jennifer Tiramani's period costumes help greatly to establish the personalities of the various characters. Stan Pressner keeps the stage brightly lit throughout most of the production, allowing audience members seated on opposite sides of the thrust to see the others' reactions.
Five talented musicians -- Keith McGowan, Emilia Benjamin, Simon Allen, Keith Thompson, and Paul Bevan -- play an assortment of instruments at key moments. They are also dressed in costume, and they frequently come out on stage. One of the production's odder directorial choices is the inclusion of several dance breaks, choreographed by Siân Williams. Some of these are performed in character and arise from the dramatic situation, while others appear to have been inserted merely to ease transitions between scenes. In general, though, they contribute to the levity that the production aims for.
Measure for Measure is being presented at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn. While this may seem a far distance for many New Yorkers, it's well worth the trip.