Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" is his last comedy, and it's notoriously difficult to perform. Written in 1603 after nearly a decade of Romantic comedies, it obeys the laws of its genre -- it ends with multiple marriages, it possesses at least one character who is in disguise and it disabuses several of the characters of their pretensions. But there the similarities end. It's a disturbing play -- it's about sex rather than romance -- one with particular resonances today because it's about sexual harassment.
The Duke of Vienna, who has not been enforcing that city's legal codes, takes a brief sabbatical so that his seemingly righteous deputy, Angelo, can whip the citizens into shape. The uptight Angelo begins by resurrecting a ludicrously out of date law against fornication, sentencing a young man, Claudio, to death for impregnating his fiancee. He then falls in love with the young man's sister, Isabel, offering her brother's life in exchange for sex. No wonder the long finale -- which diffidently ties loose ends together -- suggests the playwright's dissatisfaction with the laws of comic form.
Michael Kahn's excellent production of "Measure for Measure" for the Shakespeare Theatre at the Lansburgh in Washington makes compelling much of what is peculiar to the play at the same time that it allows the audience to laugh. Kahn places the scene in decadent 1920s Vienna -- a choice that allows him to depict sexual license as well as the hysterical response to it (in the form of fascism). This production shows its intelligence even in incidental details, such as the huge reproduction of Jean-Leon Gerome's almost pornographic "Pygmalion and Galatea" in the Duke's study -- a choice that suggests this play's preoccupation with titillation and provocation.