Directed by Simon Godwin (The Cherry Orchard), the Theatre for a New Audience’s production of Shakespeare’s notoriously problematic play offers audience members a choice – even before the play begins. You can enter through the doors, as normal, or you can be admitted by a sultry, scantily-clad hostess murmuring “Nice to see you again,” to select patrons into a circuitous route through a darkened faux bordello, where various S&M scenarios can be glimpsed off to the sides. As far as I could tell, everyone chose the bordello.
The jaunt through the whorehouse sets the scene for the wildly decadent Vienna in which the play takes place (here depicted more as Isherwood saw it rather than as Shakespeare might have imagined it) and for the semi-immersive experience that awaits playgoers. But perhaps ironically, in a play whose title could be roughly translated as “you get what you give,” in one of the first scenes, we discover that all the city’s storied brothels are being shut down. Why? It turns out that the city’s quixotic ruler, Duke Vincentio (the strange and effective Jonathan Cake), whom we’ve already seen shoot up and collapse onstage, has decided to restore order and virtue to the metropolis by handing over the reins temporarily to the rigidly moral Angelo (a creepily officious Thomas Jay Ryan), while he “leaves” his city. But in fact, for amorphous reasons of his own, Vincentio only pretends to depart, donning a hood and heavy glasses to disguise himself as a friar so that he can see what happens as Angelo institutes a new regime of goodness. Hence the crackdown on the bordellos – and on all kinds of other vices, up to and including adultery, now punishable by death. But when Angelo’s draconian laws condemn Claudio (Leland Fowler), a young man who’s impregnated a woman he loves but whom his family forbids him to marry, Claudio’s pious but persistent sister Isabella (Cara Ricketts), a nun-in-training, comes to Angelo to plead for her brother’s life. The straitlaced bureaucrat falls madly in lust with her and offers her a corrupt bargain of his own: To win her brother’s safety, she must give way to his sexual desires.
This production goes all out to involve (or is it implicate?) the audience, even post-bordello. Audience members in the front row are seated at the thrust stage as though it were a table, and during the intermission, some are called onstage to sit at little cabaret tables at the bar, “The Moated Grange,” where Mariana, (an excellent Merritt Janson), the fiancée Angelo spurned years ago, performs a number of soulful ballads. Indeed, theatergoers are even pressed into service to welcome the duke on his “return” to the city. But just as engaging are the clever modern references in the staging – when brothelkeeper Mistress Overdone (January Lavoy) and the pimp Pompey (the very funny Christopher Michael McFarland) discuss the proclamation that seeks to shut their operation down, they’re packing up a life-size blowup doll and a long string of condom packets, for example. And Ryan’s be-suited petty policy tyrant evokes the 20th century’s Mad Man in the gray flannel suit to unnerving effect. Even the various clowns and minor luminaries who fill out the cast of characters bring a modern inflection to Shakespeare’s centuries-old lines, even as their inebriated escapades feel, well, timeless – and as their presence attests, though the brothels may be banned, the pimps and madams are always with us – and may offer more honest bargains than the city’s rulers.
But theatrical modernizations aside, given this far-from-perfect play’s inherent problematics (What motivates the duke? Why can’t Isabella appeal to religious authorities? Why does Mariana still have any interest in, let alone affection for, Angelo?), what may be its most interesting aspect is how relevant its fairy-tale conundrums still feel. Much of that may be attributable to compelling performances from the leads. In particular, Ryan steals the show as the repressed and repressive arbiter of virtue. While the duke participated in the vice that ruled his realm, once given power, Angelo doesn’t hold himself to the same standard of morality he imposes, and Ryan’s brilliant performance emphasizes how insidious that mundane evil is. In the other key roles, Cake makes a Dr. Who-ish sense of the duke’s eccentric behavior, and Ricketts’ fierce Isabella provides a convincing and compelling moral center as foil to his fecklessness. What’s more, in an age where nations vacillate between fundamentalism and corruption, while few modern-day Isabellas may be faced with her specific choice of evils, sexual hypocrisy and coercion by the powerful certainly feel contemporary – as does, more abstractly, the corruption of any absolutist system, however well intentioned, by sheer human frailty.
In the end, what feels least modern – or realistic – in the play, sadly, is still the forgiving grace that marks its ending. The double marriages that conclude the action are ostensibly happy, but even if we take them at face value, the grace to wrest the action to this denouement seems almost inexplicable – even otherworldly – and maybe as difficult to achieve as the absolute virtue to which Angelo once aspired. A problem transcended is, alas, not a problem solved.