Pleading for pleasure

Ancient prudes make civil trysts unclean in “Measure for Measure”

by Keri Carlson

Sex is everywhere. Whether on the cover of magazines, in popular song lyrics, in the back pages of alternative weeklies, in porn shops and strip clubs or in e-mail spam, it’s unavoidable.

Despite the dominance of sex in our culture, those in power still try to control it. While MTV and “Desperate Housewives” make it seem as if everyone’s having sex, abstinence programs are being pushed in schools.

William Shakespeare’s dark comedy “Measure for Measure” deals with a corrupt government official who restricts sex by law.

Because the premise is relevant in today’s atmosphere of moral panic, it’s curious how “Measure for Measure” is one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known and seldom-performed plays.

Perhaps it hits too close to home.

Plays such as “Romeo and Juliet” and “Macbeth” adapt, because universal themes of lust, passion, power and violence resonate through the centuries.

“Measure for Measure,” while heavily thematic, is more plot-driven.

The duke of Vienna, Vincentio, pretends to go on vacation, leaving his deputy, Angelo, in charge. Vincentio disguises himself as a friar and observes Angelo’s rule.

With the duke believed to be gone, Angelo revives moralistic laws. Under the new regime, a man named Claudio is sentenced to death for impregnating his fiance before the wedding.

To save her brother, Isabella, a novice nun, goes to Angelo and pleads with him to spare her brother. Angelo finds himself lusting after the forbidden Isabella. He tells Isabella the only way to save her brother is to sleep with him.

Shakespeare questions the hypocrisy behind leaders of moral issues as well as the practice of forgiveness – Isabella and the audience are asked to forgive Angelo at the end.

Theatre in the Round’s production is most eerie, because the plot seems too familiar – the politician setting moral laws cannot help but break them.

Director Zach Curtis places the 17th-century play in modern times, changing brothels to seedy, underground dance clubs.

The transition works all too well. “Measure for Measure” is particularly disturbing, because it feels as if the laws and control over sex in Shakespeare’s time should not be applicable today. That is what Theatre in the Round brings to light. Four hundred years have gone by, yet people’s private sex lives are still under the scrutiny of the government.

The play is not all dreariness – it is, after all, a comedy. David Schlosser brings a Puck-ish charm to his backstabbing character, the grotesque pimp Pompey. And David Talarico, as the guard Elbow, nails physical comedy, flinging his body at each end of the stage and making elaborate cartoon facial expressions.

Culture and technology might change, but in many ways, sex is the same as it ever was.