"Measure for Measure" is a comedy in the classical sense, since it has a happy ending, but is not in truth very humorous in plot, and has a distinct moral ambiguity that this production neither shied away from nor emphasised.
The Duke of Vienna, Vincentio (Brian Robert Mani), decides to take a sabbatical. He is concerned that, through lack of will power, he has been lax in enforcing the laws. He has decided to leave running the state in the hands of his deputy, Angelo, who is known for his moral rigidity. (This despite the fact, as we later find, the Duke well knows that Angelo callously abandoned his fiance, Mariana, when her dowry was lost at sea, and slandered her in the so doing.) Vincento then sneaks back into the city disguised as a monk, in order to observe how his social experiment is going.
Meanwhile, Angelo (Jim DeVita) has declared the strict enforcement of all the old laws, including the one against "seduction" (classically "when a male person induced an unmarried female of previously chaste character to engage in an act of sexual intercourse on a promise of marriage.") and pronounces a sentence of death on Claudio, a young nobleman who has impregnated his lover. Claudio gets a message to his chaste sister, Isabella, who is on the verge of taking holy orders, asking her to plead for him in hopes Angelo will be swayed by her purity whereas the pleas of the Duke's more moderate servants ("Escalus," Paul Bentzen; "the Provost", Jonathan Smoots) have had no effect.
Angelo is swayed by Isabella (Colleen Madden), but not in a good way. After a great struggle with his lusts, Angelo declares that he will spare Claudio only if Isabella yields her virginity to him.
Dismayed, Isabella repairs to the prison to tell her brother what has happened, and is even more shocked and appalled when she discovers that he would be willing to let her do it on his behalf.
Enter Vincentio as the monk, acting as Claudio's confessor, who guides them to a plan whereby under cover of darkness Antonio's thwarted fiancee (who loves him despite all) will take Isabella's place.
The ruse goes off, but the promised reprieve does not come: Angelo has determined to let Claudio die, fearing that he might revenge his sister's dishonor at some future time. Vincentio grasps at desperate straws to avert Cludio's death without blowing his cover, finally convincing the kind-hearted Provost to substitute the body of a prisoner who had died of a fever the night before.
This is where it might be argued that the play (or at least the Duke) descends into gratuitous cruelty: Vincentio does not reveal his new plan, but allows Isabella to believe her brother is dead, and coaches her to accuse Angelo when "the Duke" returns, knowing that she will in turn be falsely accused by Angelo of slander, sedition, and mental instability. Vincentio as the Duke then allows his psychodrama to work out until his own part is revealed, at which point he threatens Angelo with the death he would have dealt Claudio, only appearing to relent when both Mariana and Isabella plead for his life. The Duke reveals Claudio and restores him to his sister, asking for Isabella's hand as he does so.
The play has some very modern features: Angelo's "little bit nutty, little bit slutty" smear attack on Isabella is right out of our recent history, as is Angelo's over-tightly wound hypocrite character. And it was ended on a modrn note: Shakespeare does not give Isabella an anwering line to the Duke's proposal, so, instead of being carried off by him, Madden's Isabella coldly walked away, leaving the Duke standing alone on stage as the play ends, which I thought suited the play and her character well.
The standout performances were Madden's, especially in the prison scenes, and De Vita as the self-loathing Angelo. Mani was very much a neutral presence as the Duke, commenting on and manipulating the action, but not seeming very involved in it. The supporting cast were up to usual high standards for APT, with a good comic turn by Kevin Christopher Fox as Lucio, Claudio's rascally friend.
Unusually for APT, I thought the production design to be a bit disjointed. The majority of the cast were costumed like Brechtian Wiemar Berlin characters; the Duke and Escalus like officials of the late Austro-Hungarian Empire; the underworld character Pompey got up in an outfit of lederhosen and derby hat that made the red-bearded actor look like a dissolute leprechaun, and Lucio had an outfit that could only be described as "Halloween disco pimp."
Fortunately, most of this was ignorable, (except when Lucio was on: his acid yellow-green "fur" coat was a visual pain at all times--). The musical background varied from current day "scratching" to snatches of "Mack the Knife."
Note: One may wonder why Shakespeare seems to have it in for constables--although, being an actor and a playwrite, perhjaps 'tis not so wonderous. The character of "Elbow" is a clear brother to the more famous Dogberry, complete with malpropisms and unwonted self-regard.
Very well worth seeing. Ignore the costumes.