Long Wharf takes full measure of Shakespeare’s problem play

Considered one of Shakespeare’s problem plays because of the tricky moral dilemma it presents, Measure for Measure, in the Fiasco Theater’s production now at Long Wharf, has been resolved with equal amounts of simplicity and fun. Instead of a weighed-down dark and dreary judgment play on moral ethics, the Fiasco Theater ensemble has lifted this play to one with humorous stock characters and laugh-out-loud twists and turns.

Of course it is no laughing matter that the Duke’s temporary Deputy condemns a man to death for getting his fiancée pregnant. The Deputy wants to use Claudio as an example to the people that immoral actions will not be tolerated. He has already closed down houses of prostitution and is now – well, he’s now holier than thou. Even though Claudio intends to marry his intended, the Deputy won’t budge from his position. But wait, here comes a twist, which introduces the big problem.

Claudio’s sister Isabella, who is about to take her vows as a nun, pleads for her brother’s life. Deputy Angelo agrees on condition that she surrenders sexually to the Deputy. Such hypocrisy! What’s a girl to do? Surely her brother would rather die than have the purity of his sister ruined, or would he? Should Isabella give up her chastity to save her brother’s life? How can this be resolved?

Keep in mind that this is not Moliere, so the Sun God is not going to suddenly appear and resolve everything. No, this is Shakespeare at his finest and represented by the finest ensemble to tackle this play in many a year. Best of all, it is a true ensemble performance, with only six actors taking on multiple roles except for Andy Grotelueschen as the Duke. The Duke is a pivotal character because he essentially goes undercover as a friar to determine the moral ethics of his people. And, oh, what he learns!

Emily Young plays the good Isabella as well as a mistress overdone, while Noah Brody plays Pompey and Claudio. Noah Brody is also the co-director of this outstanding production along with Ben Steinfeld who also  appears in the production as Lucio and Froth. Rounding off the talented cast are Jessie Austrian and Paul L. Coffey.

In spite of the fact that this play was first presented to King James I in 1604, the subject of sexual misconduct amongst noble leaders is as timely a topic as ever. Long Wharf’s playbill points out several politicians who preach the high moral public standard, yet live their private lives at another standard.

Incredibly, Derek McLane’s minimal set of free standing doors and a few odd props assist the audience in imagining another era.Whitney Locher’s costumes punctuate the characters with Christopher Akerlind’s lighting design. Without a doubt, “Measure for Measure” measures up pretty well at Long Wharf through Dec. 20. Box office:  (203) 787-4282.

Joanne Greco Rochman is an active member in The American Theatre Critics Association.  She welcomes comments. Contact: jgrochman@gmail.com