Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" is his last comedy, and it's notoriously difficult to perform. Written in 1603 after nearly a decade of Romantic comedies, it obeys the laws of its genre -- it ends with multiple marriages, it possesses at least one character who is in disguise and it disabuses several of the characters of their pretensions. But there the similarities end. It's a disturbing play -- it's about sex rather than romance -- one with particular resonances today because it's about sexual harassment.
The Duke of Vienna, who has not been enforcing that city's legal codes, takes a brief sabbatical so that his seemingly righteous deputy, Angelo, can whip the citizens into shape. The uptight Angelo begins by resurrecting a ludicrously out of date law against fornication, sentencing a young man, Claudio, to death for impregnating his fiancee. He then falls in love with the young man's sister, Isabel, offering her brother's life in exchange for sex. No wonder the long finale -- which diffidently ties loose ends together -- suggests the playwright's dissatisfaction with the laws of comic form.
Michael Kahn's excellent production of "Measure for Measure" for the Shakespeare Theatre at the Lansburgh in Washington makes compelling much of what is peculiar to the play at the same time that it allows the audience to laugh. Kahn places the scene in decadent 1920s Vienna -- a choice that allows him to depict sexual license as well as the hysterical response to it (in the form of fascism). This production shows its intelligence even in incidental details, such as the huge reproduction of Jean-Leon Gerome's almost pornographic "Pygmalion and Galatea" in the Duke's study -- a choice that suggests this play's preoccupation with titillation and provocation.
The best of several excellent performances may have been Philip Goodwin's Angelo. Standing unyieldingly straight, his uncontrollably quivering fingers suggesting his trouble controlling his instincts, this was a study in repression that managed to remain a human being. He was perfectly matched to Kelly McGillis' Isabel, Angelo's partner in sexual repression, if not in pathology. This is a character -- she prefers her virginity to her brother's life -- who all too easily can seem a monster. But McGillis made Isabel's sexual hysteria affectingly human without being irredeemably neurotic. And Keith Baxter's Duke was wonderfully drawn. The Duke can be something of a cold, unlikable experimenter with human beings, but Baxter made him a warm, somewhat bumbling representative of the divine providence to which the play's biblical references repeatedly call attention.
There are a few missteps in Kahn's production -- he unwisely plays an episode involving Mariana, the jilted betrothed of Angelo, for laughs and he tries too hard to suggest a comic resolution that just isn't there. But Shakespeare almost always loaded the veins of his plays with more ore than any single production can mine. And this fine production yields more than its measure of pure gold.
"Measure for Measure" continues at Shakespeare Theatre at the Lansburgh in Washington through June 14. Call (202) 393-2700 for tickets.