Shakespeare arrived at this dandy reality-show concept a long time ago in Measure for Measure, the play about sexual hypocrisy, unyielding moral rectitude and misplaced trust. And while this free-of-charge production by the locally touring Cleveland Shakespeare Festival often rushes headlong through Will's dense versifying, there are moments both telling and amusing.
The camouflaged person in this story is Duke Vincentio, who sneaks away from his lofty post to impersonate a friar and spy on righteous Angelo, the man he appoints to run Vienna. Once in power, Angelo slaps the cuffs on poor young Claudio for impregnating his girlfriend Juliet prior to marriage.
Facing a next-day beheading for his premarital boffing — hey abstinence folks, here's a cool new idea! — Claudio (a young and earnest Corey Knick) is trembling with fear. So he asks his pal Lucio to find Isabella, Claudio's sister and soon-to-be nun, and ask her to intervene with Angelo on her brother's behalf. After all, who could turn down the pleadings of a saintly woman?
The answer: Angelo. Instead of being swayed toward mercy, Angelo just considers Isabella's pleas a hot come-on, offering to trade Claudio's life for a roll in the hay with sis. Isabella is biblically pissed at this deal and is sure that her brother would rather die than see her crotch-dancing with the slimy Angelo.
But Claudio says that it all sounds dandy to him, eager as he is to keep his head on his neck. So everyone is at loggerheads until the Duke reveals himself and sorts everything out.
Often called one of Shakespeare's "problem" plays, M for M is quite a mash-up of sex, prudery, philosophizing, comedy, satire and, sure, the occasional beheading. And it doesn't necessarily benefit from this abridged 100-minute treatment that erases some of the sub-plots and fuzzes other relationships and characters.
Still, the guts of Shakespeare's story are in place, and it has an undeniable appeal. This allegory, with the supposedly moralistic and upright Angelo intent on besmirching the soul of a spotless virgin, rings true today with the many instances of religious hypocrisy that abound.
The young cast has a good grip, for the most part, on their characters. Keith Kornajcik commands the stage well as the Duke, and he finds some welcome nuance when robed as the friar.
As conniving Angelo, Justin Brenis works up a pretty good sweat over Isabella who, as played by Faith Whitacre, exudes piety and determination in equal parts. Keith Huff's Lucio is a loose and louche bundle of quirks, and Henrick Sawczak swaggers with ballsy arrogance as the bawd Pompey.
Trouble is, there is a tendency to speed through speeches, racing by the small beats that give Shakespeare's words (and thoughts) such resonance. As a result, none of the characters is as well developed, and therefore as interesting, as they might be.
But let's not make the perfect the enemy of the good. CSF artistic director (and director of this show) Tyson Douglas Rand continues to mount two plays each summer in rolling repertory at various outdoor venues around Cleveland. So for the price of a free-will donation and lugging a lawn chair or blanket, you are able to experience the Bard in a number of wonderful outdoor settings.
This is a theater company that works hard all summer to bring these classics to life, and that is a special treat for all Clevelanders.