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Half measures: Fine acting can’t solve problem play

Hands-on administration: The odious Angelo, played by Thomas Jay Ryan, makes a shocking assault on the virginal Isabella, played by Cara Rickett, in Theater for a New Audience’s production of “Measure for Measure.”
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It doesn’t really measure up.

The latest production of “Measure for Measure,” which opened this week at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Fort Greene, makes a noble stab at Shakespeare’s notorious “problem play.” But despite an excellent production, it doesn’t manage to resolve any of those problems — and introduces a few new ones.

Once upon a time there was a thing called “the fourth wall” — actors trod the stage, and the audience watched them. But now everything must be immersive, and so the show starts before the play, with the audience trooping through hallways meant to represent minor character Mistress Overdone’s bordello, walls lined with colorful dildos and smiling young women — and men — giving familiar greetings. But there is no chance to dally, with a scrum of ticketed patrons close behind, so we push through to find our seats.

Twelve of those seats crowd up to the thrust stage, as though the audience were sitting at an enormous dinner table — which indeed is how the stage is decorated for the first five minutes of the play, only for that decor to be cleared away and never referred to again.

It also starts with a wordless party scene, because it is blasphemy to add words to the immortal Bard’s play, but directors still want to add extra context. So we get a silent glimpse of Duke Vincentio — played charmingly by Jonathan Cake — shooting up heroin. This is also never referred to again, and he exhibits no withdrawal, cravings, or other ill effects. The scene does, however, turn all the Duke’s later objections to rumors that he is a drunk into pure hypocrisy — which would be a fine choice, if the play did anything with it. Instead, those moments are played for laughs, with characters acting as though their demonstrably true comments were exaggerated lies.

As for the plot — the play follows said Duke as he prepares to leave town, handing his power to Angelo (Thomas Jay Ryan), a notoriously strict and cold-blooded judge, who promptly starts enforcing all the laws the Duke had let slide. A law against fornication imprisons Claudio (Leland Fowler), who had pre-marital sex with his fiance, and his sister Isabella, a novitiate nun (stunningly played by Cara Rickets) goes to Angelo to plead for mercy. He agrees to let her brother go, if she will have sex with him — if not, her brother will be executed. Meanwhile, the Duke runs around in disguise, orchestrating a complicated series of schemes, and a series of wacky hijinks happen in the prison. So yeah, there’s a tone problem.

The funny bits are truly funny — a dim-witted constable named Elbow, played with deadpan seriousness by Zachary Fine, has a series of great interactions with the bawd Pompey (Christopher Michael McFarland), and I’m not above laughing at a sight gag involving an inflatable sex toy. And the serious moments are deadly serious. The prissy, outardly proper Angelo is effectively conveyed through gestures big and small — insisting on using a coaster, reaching for hand sanitizer after every interaction — and his threats to Isabella are truly chilling. When the older white politician seizes her, hissing that no one will believe her if she tells of his extortion, the audience gasped.

But despite a top-notch cast and many fine moments, it all adds up to less than the sum of its parts. Nothing seems to carry from one scene to the next, the extra flourishes never pay off, and the problem play remains unsolved.

“Measure for Measure” at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center [262 Ashland Pl. between Fulton Street and Lafayette Avenue in Fort Greene, (212) 229–2819, www.tfana.org]. Through July 16 at 7:30 pm. $85–$120 ($30 students).

Updated 11:55 am, June 29, 2017
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