Sex and the city

Shakespeare heads downtown in Intiman's latest production.

IF YOU COULD STAND to turn on your television this fall, you were certain to find the airwaves drenched in the syrupy emotionalism of political campaigns. Thus, it is fitting that Intiman ends its year with a production of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, in an interpretation that exposes the emotional ambiguities of justice, power, and law, while driving home the point with promiscuous provocation. In fact, this show more than loosens Bill's ruff and rumples his hair; it takes liberties licentious enough to put Elizabethans on friendly terms with Aurora streetwalkers.

Measure for Measure

Intiman Theater ends November 18

Set in an urban abstraction, the play strives to incorporate both modern and arcane iconography in the same casual way it combines the action with the rest of the theater space: A large mural of an Expressionist Christ looms overhead, haloed with neon and flanked by the audience on either side. The rest of the stage is a simplified platform of prefabricated steel. By layering the religious aesthetics of the past atop the gritty landscape of a contemporary city, the play successfully brings the sexual legislation of yore into our political foreground while maintaining the Shakespearean plot.

Wanting to purge his city of its seamier sides, the Duke of Vienna (the formidable Laurence Ballard) appoints a puritanical judge, Angelo (Timothy McCuen Piggee), as acting head of state. The Duke remains in hiding to observe how his surrogate dispenses justice. Angelo does so harshly; after removing all the city's brothels, he then sentences an aristocrat to death for impregnating his fianc饮 When the prisoner's soon-to-be-consecrated sister, Isabella (Susan Appel), begs Angelo for her brother's life, Angelo becomes aroused by her purity and sexually propositions her.

Director Libby Appel takes a contemplative story that weighs righteousness against plain, old common sense and dramatizes it. The actors do an excellent job of clarifying each character's personal motivations, particularly Piggee and Appel; they let each character wrestle with a dilemma, accompanying this torment with either self- flagellation or earnest prayer. At times, the intensity can be overmuch; it is hardly palatable to watch Angelo assault Isabella on stage, but it does actualize his proposition in full dramatic flower. The return to emotionalism—in the form of tearful entreaties, lusty sweat, and spit-spewing rage—is far more than an electrolyte-wrung delivery, however. Along with the dramatic set, lighting, and gestures, it reinforces the belief that legislating morality without common sense wreaks emotional havoc. Even in the end when the Duke sorts out the misdeeds accrued in his absence, justice is meted out, but only to serve him. All are "sentenced" to ill-suited marriages, continuing Vienna's cycles of lust and temptation, and the ambiguous ending of this supposed comedy is left twisting in the wind without laughter.

For those looking to be offended this play will easily give them cause. All the characters wear their sexuality on their sleeves (and with prostitutes, masturbation, venereal disease, and chastity belts, those sleeves get pretty filthy). But Appel's production is clever, well thought out, and the sex, if anything, turns our libidos off—but just long enough for us to use our brains.

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