Through a menacing darkness vivified by sleek demons prowling in black, an overpopulated bed rises from below stage in the silent prologue of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” in Central Park.
The writhing bodies quickly fall away in this scene suggestive of biblical licentiousness. Left is the lone figure of Vincentio, duke of a Vienna that has gone all Sodom and Gomorrah under his lax leadership. Convinced he can’t undo what he has wrought, Vincentio temporarily turns his reign over to a trusted deputy, Angelo.
To send an unmistakable message that fornication no longer will be tolerated, Angelo sentences the young Claudio to death for impregnating his fiancee. But Angelo, it turns out, has a sordid past, not to mention a libido that erupts when the chaste Isabella appears to plead her brother’s cause.
Angelo is so certain of his immunity that he even tells Isabella no one will take her word against his: “My false o’erweighs your truth.” Boy, does that sound familiar.
Of all Shakespeare’s problem plays, “Measure for Measure” has a salacious salience that never seems to go out of style.
Unlike Daniel Sullivan’s Edwardian-era staging of “All’s Well That Ends Well,” David Esbjornson’s production doesn’t stray far from its Renaissance roots. Still, it isn’t averse to lending a few macabre touches in the service of a tale that ends with the happy comeuppance of a sanctimonious hypocrite.
Michael Hayden, a quietly versatile actor, underplays Angelo with a welcome absence of mustache twirling. Intellectually and spiritually, Isabella is equal to Angelo’s challenge; they’ve been played on this stage by Meryl Streep and Sam Waterston, among others. Hayden and his determined foil, Danai Gurira’s Isabella, may not reach those stellar heights, but they’re never less than compelling players in this well-told moralistic tale.
There are also good performances from Lorenzo Pisoni, as the Duke, Reg Rogers as Lucio and, especially, Carson Elrod, as the smarmy tapster Pompey. Tonya Pinkins is the dourest Mistress Overdone in memory. She’s no fun at all.
But I admired those slinky, sinister night creatures from the bad Vienna. They reminded me of racy Pottersville in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I always thought Pottersville looked pretty enticing.
“Measure for Measure” runs in repertory with “All’s Well That Ends Well” through July 30 at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park (enter at East 79th Street or West 81st Street). Tickets are free. Information: +1-212-539-8650; http://www.publictheater.org Rating: ***
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(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)