Measure for Measure, dating to 1602 or 1603, is an infrequently performed Shakespeare comedy, probably because it has less easy appeal than its more famous predecessors. The MSU Theater Department production, continuing through November 18 at Wonders Hall, shows why, if well done, this play deserves a stronger place in the repertoire.
Christina Traister's direction is what I would call a post-modern-traditionalist take on this "problem play." The story revolves around draconian, if unenforced, laws against pre-marital sex, a topic that has had little relevance in college communities for a couple of generations, if not more, although it is not at all irrelevant from a global perspective. I generally find attempts to make Shakespeare, or other "dated" works, relevant by updating the setting, usually to a time and place also not here-and-now, distracting, but purist, as we imagine performed at The Globe, productions can get tiresome. Traister mostly stays true to period costumes and setting, but throws in enough contemporary allusions to allow the audience to be aware it is watching in 2012, while engaging fully with the darkness that cannot be done tongue-in-cheek.
The post-modernism (along with using "tablets" for paperwork and a few other bits) is embodied in the "bawd," Pompey, wonderfully played as a "trouser-role" by Zachera Wollenberg, who had a similar, albeit unquestionably female role, to much applause, in last Summer Circle's Adrift in Macao. Not in period costume, complete with iPod and ear bugs, but with a period lock-picker, the acerbic, up-yours-authority, her Pompey is both totally now and totally Shakespeare, including providing half-time entertainment. This gives the audience a way to relate, while the other comic characters, the constable, Elbow (Chris Coy), and Pompey's bawdy-house employer, Mistress Overdone (Mary Dilworth), as well as the authority figures whom she baits, stay in period. It is a remarkably effective way of letting us have contemporary fun -- Ms. Wollenberg has the talent to be a first-rate professional comedic actress -- without distracting from the serious drama, best left in its Vienna Dukedom.