Is the 17th century having a thoroughly modern moment on Twin Cities stages? A few weeks ago, Classical Actors Ensemble's "The Roaring Girl" demonstrated that cross-dressing and the questioning of gender roles maybe aren't such radically new ideas. Now, hard on its heels, Theatre Unbound's "Measure for Measure" reminds us that while the #MeToo Movement may be young, sexual violence and harassment are as old as dirt.
With its mix of politics and predation, and a tone that swings uneasily between broad humor and bleak cynicism, "Measure for Measure" has long been considered one of Shakespeare's "problem" plays. Its plot is laced with manipulations and its characters, even the sympathetic ones, are deeply flawed.
There's the Duke (Charla Marie Bailey), who delegates his power to his second-in-command, then lurks around in disguise to spy on him. Turns out he has good reason, as the upright Angelo (Samantha Joy Singh) has been quickly corrupted by his newfound power.
When young Isabella (Ashembaga Jaafaru) pleads for leniency for her brother, whom Angelo has sentenced to death, he offers her a loathsome deal: have sex with him in exchange for her brother's life. Around these three swirl a number of secondary characters whose varying degrees of moral leniency demonstrate a society in flux.
In a new version of the text that may hew more closely to Shakespeare's original, director Kate Powers and her cast offer an intriguing if somewhat wobbly take on this challenging play. Bailey's Duke is a humorous ringmaster, manipulating various characters' fates with little emotional involvement. That ironic detachment makes his proposal to Isabella in the final moments of the play seem unearned, while the fact that the lights immediately go to black, allowing for no reaction from Isabella herself, leaves the production feeling oddly incomplete.
Singh lends the role of Angelo a self-righteous demeanor that deftly communicates her character's coldly calculated hypocrisy, but a tendency toward a rushed delivery weakens the impact of some key scenes. Meri Golden and Travis Bedard offer assured performances, while Stephanie Ruas' Provost is a nuanced portrait of strained dignity.
Others seem less comfortable in their roles, while awkward blocking and some struggles with lines slowed the pace on opening night.
The highlight is Ashembaga Jaafaru's commanding portrayal of Isabella. Demonstrating an assured control of the language, she delivers a focused performance that imbues her character with nuance and astonishingly expressive emotion. Jaafaru's compelling work goes some way toward mitigating this timely production's unevenness and lends it a much needed sense of urgency.
Lisa Brock is a Twin Cities critic.