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Shakespeare Sizzles in 'Measure for Measure'

Bonnie Monte tackles the Bard’s dark comedy.

Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” often suffers from bad press, some of it deserved and some merely the byproduct of its dramatic complexities.

Branded as one of the Bard’s “problem plays,” the comedy is broad and the drama—a rich blend of sex and politics—is both frightening and frighteningly relevant to our times, when leaders operate in a moral vacuum, seemingly obsessed with abusing their power and position. All points in its favor.

On the other hand, the plot is preposterous, even by Shakespeare standards, and its complexities can be a challenge for some viewers. Feminists often take a dim view on its dated treatment of women. These challenges make “Measure for Measure” a tough sell for most companies

Fortunately, we share an area code with the , which eats problem plays for lunch. Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte looks at so-called problem plays and only sees a gem that needs a good polishing. Her 20-year tenure has done it many times before—last year’s “Timon of Athens,” for example, was visually stunning and wildly entertaining—and “Measure for Measure” was nicely done here as recently as 2007.

Now it’s Monte’s turn to direct it for the first time. It’s hard to imagine any other company nailing this play twice in six years, but Monte was so eager to get her hands on it that she put it in the middle of her company’s 50th anniversary season. And nail it she did, dazzling the opening-night audience Saturday with an inspired cast and a production where all the elements—including an arresting set, eerie lighting and disturbing music—are firing on all cylinders.

To review for the Shakespeare-phobics, who should not be afraid to give this one a try, let’s review the plot. We’re in Vienna, where Duke Vinentio (Bruce Turk) is troubled that the laws have been bent so long that they are no longer enforceable, leaving him with a weak grip on a corrupt land.

He tells his deputy, Angelo (Sean Mahan), to take over while he goes on a diplomatic mission, but in fact he stays in town and disguises himself as a friar to spy on Angelo’s administration. Angelo is a hard-liner and Vincentio hopes they can ultimately strike a balance between justice and mercy.

Angelo tries to establish law and order by dispensing cold, blind justice on Claudio (James Knight), sentencing him to death for technically unlawful carnal knowledge with Julietta (Rachael Fox). He also quickly succumbs to the temptations of power when he gets his eyes on Claudio’s sister, Isabella (Erin Partin), who comes to beg for mercy.

Angelo, taken with her beauty and spirit, looks past the fact that Isabella is a novice nun and makes an indecent proposal—he’ll spare Claudio’s head if he can take Isabella’s virginity. This is something she cannot do in the world she lives in, despite the pathetic pleadings of her brother.

As luck would have it, Vincentio, in his friar guise, learns of their woe and intercedes with a complex plot to fool Angelo and save honor, virtue and happiness for all.

Meanwhile, there are a few clowns to lighten the mood, the best of which is company veteran Greg Jackson as Lucio, a friend of Claudio who simply doesn’t know when to shut up. Twirling his cane and derby (Paul Canada’s costumes are vaguely late-Victorian), the would-be dandy slanders the Duke to the Duke’s face, which at the time is conveniently hidden under a friar hoodie. Another familiar face, Raphael Nash Thompson, brings a light touch to Pompey, whose work in Vienna’s red-light district has put him on Angelo’s list as well.

Monte expertly blends the dramatic and comedic tones like a confection folding salty and sweet into a tempting treat. She embraces the ambiguity—and absurdity—of the final scene, leaving us thinking as well as laughing.

She also inspires some career-defining moments out of her cast, which features many of the company’s most reliable artists. They would include Partin, a lovely actress who grew up on this stage playing ingénues and maidens over 11 seasons and has now passed her final exam as a leading lady. First, she effectively captures Isabella’s rage, horror, despair and resolve, then solves one of the play’s oddest climatic moments with a single, delightfully ambiguous expression.

Turk, too, has impressed over the years, but he has never been better than he is here, showing impressive range on both the dramatic and comedic end of this work.

The equally versatile Mahan, who got lots of laughs here last year in “Arms and the Man,” brings a nice measure of subtle malevolence to Angelo, while Darren Matthias doubles as Friar Thomas and Abhorson, nearly stealing the show in the latter role, a dour executioner and expert in deadpan humor.

Another comedy standout, coming from the non-Equity company, is Ben Sterling, first as the indignant Constable Elbow and later as the unrepentant prisoner Barnardine, who somehow avoids decapitation by stubbornly refusing to participate.

The set, designed by Monte and Brian Ruggaber, is fairly simple, but striking, dominated by a back wall constructed of brass-like ribs, topped with a rather frightening large mask of what looks like a Roman goddess, showing displeasure with the mortals below.

Lighting designer Steven Rosen complements and sometimes establishes the mood, sharply spotlighting central characters and projecting eerie shadows through the rails of the back wall.

Make no mistake about it—there’s a lot of heavy lifting for the audience. The opening-night crowd, along with the cast, had to do some additional work when a fire alarm sounded, requiring everyone to leave the building. Fortunately, the alarm turned out to be much ado about nothing.

Those who are still in vacation mode and looking for some mindless entertainment may prefer a comic-book movie or a nap on the beach to this meaty, mercurial masterpiece. But for the adventurous spirit, Monte’s latest triumph just might make your summer.

 “Measure for Measure” runs through August 26 at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, 36 Madison Ave. at , Madison. Tickets are $32 to $70. For more information, call 973-408-5600 or visit www.shakespearenj.org.

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