Review: Shakespeare Meets Elevator Repair Service. Mayhem Ensues.

Mr. Collins and company have indeed sent in cousins of those clowns to wreak havoc on Shakespeare’s dark comic drama of judgment, mercy and sexual hypocrisy. Sometimes these demolition experts are pretty funny. But if you don’t already know “Measure for Measure” — and it’s an uncommonly hard play to know — you’ll need NoDoz to stay engaged.

Frustration and even defeat are not unusual responses to “Measure for Measure,” which is set in a medieval, vice-ridden Vienna in which fornication before marriage is punishable by death. That law has gone long unenforced when the play begins, so the enigmatic Duke of Vienna (Scott Shepherd) decides to step aside and put the merciless puritan Angelo (Pete Simpson) in charge.

But even as he sends police into the city’s bars and brothels, Angelo is wrestling with illicit desires of his own. He finds himself inconveniently in lust with Isabella (Rinne Groff), a convent novitiate, when she comes to plead for the life of her brother, Claudio (Greig Sargeant), condemned for premarital sex. All the while, the Duke, disguised as a lowly friar, observes from the shadows.

The scholar Harold Bloom has described “Measure for Measure” as a nihilistic “comedy that destroys comedy.” It is a work that combines psychosexual portraiture that anticipates Freud with stock farcical figures like the illiterate cop and various rascally lowlifes. It does not have a single sympathetic character, and every philosophical principle seems to be contradicted by another.

Photo

From left: April Matthis (sitting on floor), Lindsay Hockaday (with ax) and Mr. Shepherd in “Measure for Measure.”

Credit
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

I usually lower my expectations for “Measure,” which contemporary directors like to trick out in (yawn) S&M and Storm Trooper regalia. The…

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