The role that the state should play in regulating human sexuality is an especially hot topic. William Shakespeare took on that issue in one of his more provocative comedies, Measure for Measure, which the innovative Fiasco acting company has brilliantly staged at the New Victory Theater. With so many wonderful Shakespeare productions hitting New York in the past months, you may be inclined to take a break from the Bard. But now is not the time — because Fiasco's Measure for Measure, with its richly evocative set and nuanced performances by a superb cast of six, is one of the season's most ingenious and entertaining Shakespeare productions.
The play takes place in Vienna, where an easygoing Duke (Andy Grotelueschen) has been watching his citizens become lax in their morals. So he turns his authority over to the strict, self-righteous Angelo (Paul L. Coffey), who enforces the city's morality laws with draconian ruthlessness. When Angelo imprisons Claudio (Noah Brody) for fornication and sentences him to death, Angelo says he will free Claudio if Claudio's sister, Isabella (Emily Young), agrees to sleep with him. Hearing this, the Duke, who has been sneaking around the city disguised as a friar, tricks Angelo into sleeping with Angelo's former fiancée, Mariana (Jessie Austrian), instead of Isabella. Once Angelo's lechery is exposed, the Duke reveals himself, strips Angelo of his power, frees Claudio, and arranges for all couples to be dutifully married.
The Fiasco company uses six stylized doors to set the scenes, hitting upon the perfect symbol for a play that examines sex and the state's intrusion into the bedroom. The wooden door of a government office, the entrance to a jail cell, a garden gate, and several other doors together create an atmosphere of secrecy, as though the inhabitants of the play's Vienna must be vigilant about hiding their lives, keeping prying eyes out as well as keeping secrets in.
Directors Brody and Steinfeld do a remarkable job of balancing Measure for Measure's elements of comedy and tragedy. Steinfeld deserves special mention for his hysterical portrayal of the two-faced Lucio. Their handling of the play's intense dramatic moments, however, lets you know that you're not in the airily comedic realm of A Midsummer Night's Dream. In the jail scene when Claudio weeps with terror at the thought of his imminent death, Brody is so moving as the doomed prisoner that you may find yourself shedding a tear for him in pity. It's also in this scene that Emily Young as the innocent Isabella unleashes one of the most savage condemnations you're likely to hear any Shakespearean actor utter. It's dark performances like these that give the play such a rich complexity.
In the end, though, this is a comedy. The final scene of Measure for Measure is sometimes criticized for shoehorning the lovers' marriages in for the sake of the conventions of the genre. Fiasco stays true to Shakespeare's text but rightly makes some of these betrothals, such as Angelo and Miriana's, seem more like a punishment than a promise of marital bliss. And in the last moments, there's a delightful flourish of ambiguity regarding the fate of Isabella and the Duke. Along with the rest of the production, moments like these make Fiasco's Measure for Measure enormously satisfying.
A word for parents: The New Victory is known for first-rate children's theater, but this play is not for tots. Measure for Measure contains relatively frank sexual discussion. Parents should be ready to tackle some questions with their kids, such as whether the government should have the right to make laws prohibiting certain acts of consensual sex between adults, and what impact prostitution has on society. So it's probably best to leave little ones at home, but bring the teens, as this play is an excellent introduction to "adult" Shakespeare.