Is it a morality tale, a tragedy, a comedy? At times, "Measure for Measure" is all those things, and that is a problem only if we feel the need to pigeonhole Shakespeare. Ten Thousand Things' staging of the Bard's ruminations on free sex, hard choices and archly comic justice illustrates how life gets complex when people act for their own reasons -- both good and bad.
Michelle Hensley lets the play speak in all its chaos and caprice, never trying to tamp down the spikes of tragedy or comedy.
Moral stakes rarely have felt so personally raw in Shakespeare. He demands absolute decisions with frightful payoffs. What would you be willing to do to save the life of a loved one? What line can you simply not cross? Does leniency beget a corrupt society or encourage mercy? And what does it mean when the arbiters of justice resist their own medicine? Hensley's production -- which gives ample breathing space for characters to express their points of view -- poses those questions clearly but leaves us searching for answers. That's just how it should be.
In Shakespeare's Vienna, the Duke (Suzanne Warmanen) departs on a diplomatic mission and Angelo (Luverne Seifert) is the new sheriff in town. He quickly imprisons Claudio (Nathan Barlow) for impregnating his girlfriend Julietta (India Gurley). Word reaches Claudio's sister Isabella (Sonja Parks) who entreats Angelo for mercy. He proposes a Faustian bargain: her virginity for Claudio's freedom.
The Duke, meanwhile, didn't really leave town and is watching all this, disguised as a friar. Amid a larcenous swirl of whores, pimps, two-faced backstabbers and hypocrites, the Duke contrives a solution that produces maybe the longest denouement in Shakespeare history.
Seifert shows us Angelo's calculation but also his unsteady step when absolute power asks to dance with his conscience. The actor avoids caricature and lets us see his moral rigidity erode. Seifert, though, might be even better clowning his way through the role of Pompey, a lusty barkeeper.
Parks projects a natural ferocity as a woman trapped by society. Her eyes are coals, every fiber of her being bristling with anger over her suffocating circumstances. Warmanen's Duke is more florid, befitting the role of narrator but less earthy than the others. Barlow's Claudio mixes innocence and fear in his expressive face. Kurt Kwan, a consummately confident actor, and Zach Curtis make notable impressions in multiple roles.
Hensley again has demonstrated how accessible and enjoyable Shakespeare can be when the text breathes and a production unfolds with simple clarity.
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299 • On Twitter: @graydonroyce