By Gwen Rice, Special to OnMilwaukee   Published Aug 21, 2018 at 6:01 PM

In her director’s notes, Risa Brainin writes that the last time she directed Shakespeare’s "Measure for Measure," it felt painfully relevant. Government officials were being exposed as hypocrites and frauds – much more corrupt and immoral than the people they were condemning. That was 11 years ago. In her latest iteration of the play, onstage at American Players Theatre through Oct. 6, she draws the contemporary comparisons are even more sharply.

This visually stunning and disturbing production focuses on the Duke of Vienna (Jim Ridge) who suddenly leaves his post, feeling powerless or uninterested in leading his constituents toward a better and more just society. On his way out the door, the Duke confers his power onto his deputy Angelo (Marcus Truschinski) who protests that perhaps he is not really up for the job. For the rest of the play, the Duke takes on the disguise of a friar so he can observe the work of his replacement at a distance from the seat of power.

Interestingly, the first target of Angelo’s tenure is the "crime" of lust. He shuts down brothels, hauls in the bawds and rules severely against Claudio (Roberto Tolentino), a young man who has gotten his fiancée pregnant. To set an example for others, Angelo condemns him to death. When Angelo’s sister Isabella (Melisa Pereyra) hears of this sentence, she pleads for her brother’s life. A novitiate who will soon take her vows as a nun, she admits that her brother has committed a crime but implores Angelo to be merciful, as God forgives sinners. But he has a different bargain in mind: trading Isabella’s virginity for her brother’s freedom.

Dressed in a cobalt blue Nehru jacket, matching pants and trendy glasses, Truschinski plays Angelo as a buttoned up beacon of decency and authority, allowing none of his personal foibles to inform his judgment of others. Unbending in his public persona, he is quick to act on his private desires and does not betray any internal conflict reconciling the two. Reclining placidly in the overstuffed white chair of his office as he issues decrees, Truschinski’s physicality lets the audience know that any doubts that the character might have felt initially have disappeared.

In the simple brown skirt and vest of her order, wearing a small gold cross and a short white veil, Pereyra could not appear more devout. Similar to Vienna’s new ruler and in accordance with her calling, she is also steadfast in the laws that govern her: It is right that she beg for mercy for her brother, but she cannot commit a sin that will damn her own soul to hell in exchange for a pardon. Unlike Angelo, this dissonance consumes her. Pereyra shows no hesitation in the young nun’s choice, only pain as she clasps her hands tightly in prayer and weeps at the thought of the base offer she’s been given.

The rest of the play belongs to Ridge’s Duke in disguise. Though as a ruler, confined in an exalted hall he was unwilling to act, as an agent for justice walking amongst the people, he works feverishly to right the wrong that has been done to Isabella and her brother. Wearing a monk’s brown robe and running shoes, Ridge is almost frantic as he orchestrates Angelo’s undoing – as if he woke up on the morning after the election and realized that a corrupt tyrant had been chosen as the city’s leader.

The action is punctuated by several other "colorful" characters who add a great deal of texture, personality and comedy to the play. As Lucio, Casey Hoekstra is the street-smart friend you want to have on your side when you’re in a jam. Unafraid to speak his mind, for the majority of the play, he is the cocky but loyal advocate, pleading for a reality check on Claudio’s victimless crime.

David Daniel also brings considerable levity to the show as the gum-snapping pimp Pompey, who is apprehended when the vice squad does a sweep of the city. Dressed in bright orange with leopard accents, Daniel’s cruly mutton chops reach almost down to the enormous gold dollar bill pendant he wears around his neck. A businessman who’s just trying to go along and get along, his contrast with the austere authority figures in the play is fantastic.

The costume design by Devon Painter starkly highlights the difference between the people of Vienna, in a flurry of bright colors that carry a ‘70s vibe, and the bland suits of those in power. But there are more contemporary visual references as wellthe prison guards are dressed as an identical, monolithic force in plaid shirts, jeans, baseball caps and sunglasses. In their bullet proof vests and expressionless faces, they look like ICE officers refusing to comment. Prisoners are marched to their cells in white jumpsuits with bar codes on the back and black hoods over their heads – again a nameless, faceless population that’s easy to generalize and forget. This impersonal approach to justice bleeds over into the set design by Nayna Ramey. Cold pillars and slab benches suggest an impenetrable prison.

Another inescapable passage in the play with an eerily modern feel is the speech Angelo gives to Isabella, assuring her that no one will believe her allegations of sexual misconduct if she tries to expose him. A powerless, voiceless object at the mercy of a famous politician, she could be the latest woman to represent the #MeToo movement.  

For all of these interesting elements, the only character with a real journey is the Duke. In his powerful final scene, he reveals Angelo’s dark secrets, saves Claudio, illustrates the necessity of forgiveness and literally reasserts his authority by seizing the book of laws that had been shoved aside. But his insistence that Isabella marry him so that they can rule Vienna with both justice and mercy works better as a metaphor than a literal command. Rather than forcing a woman to bed without her consent, it is a good illustration that laws – and those who enforce them – need to be kind as well as just.