Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” currently in a fresh new production at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, feels like one big test with a bunch of smaller tests nestled inside.
Some of the challenges feel arbitrary, like bait — "What does he say about me when I'm not there?" Many are cruel. All are wrapped up with honor or responsibility — in the broadest sense, what we owe to each other, and what power lies in simply being believed.
The first test comes for Angelo, played by Marcus Truschinski with cool detachment and a mandarin-collar blue jacket that makes him look like a Bond villain. The Duke has decided to stage his own version of “Undercover Boss” in Vienna, and he picks Angelo to take the reins. Angelo’s not so sure.
“Let there be some more test made of my mettle,” Angelo says, “before so noble and so great a figure be stamped upon it.”
But the Duke goes, and in his chair Angelo cracks down. A literary cousin to the icy Monseigneur in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” Angelo becomes both determined to cleanse the streets of fornicators and “bawds” and deny his own moral weakness.
Truschinski, self-contained and unsmiling, gives Angelo enough tortured humanity to make him frighteningly real. In a deeply uncomfortable scene that reinforces the timelessness of the #MeToo movement, Angelo abuses his power even as he punishes others for the same perceived sin.
This is where Isabella’s test comes in. When her brother Claudio is violently separated from his pregnant fiancée and sentenced to death, the would-be nun is encouraged to “assay the power (she has),” soften her voice and plead his case.
Melisa Pereyra, as the severe and impassioned Isabella, centers her character (and arguably the entire play) with a steely strength that seems to emanate from her core. She’s furious and desperate, a Shakespearean Antigone, forced to appeal for her brother despite believing him a sinner herself.
Angelo is more than swayed. When he hints at, then fully crosses a line, Isabella vows to expose him. He responds with that old chestnut: “Who will believe thee?”
Against these two, James Ridge plays the fumbling Duke in disguise, pulling the increasingly complicated strings of the plot from inside a friar’s cassock. The Duke is a pushover who, like Angelo, doesn’t see his own hypocrisy, though Ridge gives him an anxious energy that helps the “comedy” along.
Yes, right, it’s a comedy! Shakespeare has to remind himself, and us, with some goofy lower-stakes characters.
In this production, the fan favorite is likely to be either Lucio, a louche friend and easy liar played with oodles of charisma by Casey Hoekstra, or Pompey, a pimp played by David Daniel with a curly mullet and a wad of gum in his mouth. They’re a foil to Isabella’s agony. We need them.
Overall, though, discomfort is the order of the day in director Risa Brainin’s updated staging. The soldiers who carry out Angelo’s orders have the black police vests and sunglasses of ICE agents. When they arrest Claudio and his fiancée (Roberto Tolentino and Cher Desiree Álvarez), the couple comforts each other in Spanish. It feels like a punch in the gut.
Even without the ICE paraphernalia and a cinematic score by Victoria Deiorio, the struggles in “Measure for Measure” would feel real and relevant. Some of the characters, like Carolyn Hoerdemann’s Duke’s aide in a power suit, echo shows like “The West Wing.”
Others could be quoting members of the current administration. It’s hard not to cringe when Escalus (Gavin Lawrence) admits that Angelo is out of control but is reluctant to risk his own neck, sighing: “There’s no remedy.”
Brainin stages the action on a geometric, icy blue-and-white set by Nayna Ramey that cordons off parts of the stage like the halls of a prison. It’s striking and sterile, a wise choice for a play that explores the tension between the rule of law and the humanity of people.
Similarly, Devon Painter’s costumes alternate authentically militaristic with patterns that are a little wild and playful — Pompey tucks his shirt into his underwear and matches his animal print suspenders to his socks.
As with a few of Shakespeare’s other not-quite-comedies (“All’s Well That Ends Well” in particular), “Measure for Measure” promises no real happy ending for anyone. Brainin closes on an ambiguous but satisfying note, one that honors Isabella’s pain and fury.
Whether we pass this test or fall short, we all have to move forward together.