Review: Sex, Lies and Vindication in a Most Timely ‘Measure for Measure’

Theater

Determined to get Vienna back on the moral high ground, a licentious duke (Alexander Arsentyev) temporarily cedes power to his chilly scold of a deputy, Angelo, who proceeds to enforce laws that have lain dormant for years. Thus young Claudio (Petr Rykov), who is expecting a child with his fiancée, Juliet (Anastasia Lebedeva), is condemned to death for fornication. His sister, Isabella, a white-habited religious novice, pleads his case.

Disguising himself as a friar, the duke observes the various goings-on. So, in this version, does the rest of the company, onstage throughout as a silent, peripatetic, occasionally dancing chorus. (The choreography is by Irina Kashuba, the music by Pavel Akimkin.)

There is a bit of gruesomeness involving a severed head, and the plot requires some slimy sexual sleight of hand. But Mr. Donnellan, the director, and Mr. Ormerod, the designer, imbue the play with a strange, ultimately profound beauty, and the actors (including a comical Alexander Feklistov as Lucio, Claudio’s friend) make three-dimensional people out of characters who are often performed more flatly.

Ms. Vardevanian is a remarkably lucid and intelligent Isabella, who has her reasons for being deathly afraid of relinquishing her virginity: shame, the risk of pregnancy. Pious though she is, she is also passionate, and when she kneels at the feet of Angelo — when he is still impassive toward her, before his lust stirs — she grabs one of his hands and covers it with kisses, beseeching him to save her brother.

This touch, flesh to flesh, is what dissolves Angelo’s icy bureaucratic armor. What’s underneath is vile, brutal and shudderingly creepy (watch him fondle Isabella’s chair after she’s left), but also recognizably human.

So is Isabella’s inability to compare the moral cost of her brother’s death to what she would lose in yielding to Angelo. They are, these two, harmfully mistaken in the same way: Isabella rigidly clinging to the letter of religious law, Angelo to civic law. Neither text, as written, is worth much without a dollop of mercy in the interpretation.

That’s true, too, of “Measure for Measure,” a strange tangle of a play that Mr. Donnellan and Mr. Ormerod have treated with compassionate insight. Building to a sad, unsettling poignancy, their production manages to encompass the whole point of life — and the terrible, foolish risk of missing out on that.

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