Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” traditionally considered a comedy, is a hard play to laugh at.
There’s pious Isabella, who’s about to enter a convent and who won’t even consider giving up her virginity (it would be too “shameful”) in exchange for saving the life of her beloved brother, Claudio. In fact, she’s outraged when he begs her to reconsider.
There’s the supposedly kind and wise Duke: He deputizes Angelo to temporarily rule the chaotically hedonistic city of Vienna, disguises himself as a friar to secretly observe the true nature of what’s happening in his realm and then returns to his former post only to play, in the last scene, a sadistic, theatrically contrived and apparently meant-to-be-comical game with the vulnerable Isabella and others, before revealing the hoax.
There’s the hypocritical villain Angelo himself.
But California Shakespeare Theater’s excellent production, directed with thrilling urgency by Tyne Rafaeli and with all roles performed by eight actors playing across genders, may be as good, and surely as funny, as “Measure” can get.
The physical buffoonery works beautifully; the dark sequences strike just the right notes of righteous anger; and the principal characters are for the most part multifaceted.
As Angelo, who imprisons young Claudio (a convincingly distraught Kevin Matthew Reyes) for sexual misconduct and sentences him to death, then tries to bargain with beautiful Isabella — her virginity in exchange for Claudio’s life — David Graham Jones portrays a man who’s loathsome and yet, in the earlier scenes, humorously sympathetic as he struggles with his own base nature.
Rowan Vickers is particularly impressive as the Duke; every word and gesture, every emotional twist and turn, rings clear and true. He mines the play’s inherent comic elements while never compromising meaning or losing focus and through-line, and makes it all look easy.
In several ensemble roles apiece, most of them comic, Patty Gallagher, Tristan Cunningham, Adam Schroeder and Annie Worden are terrific; Worden’s about-to-be-beheaded prisoner is a knockout, as is Schroeder’s louche Lucio.
Lindsay Rico’s Isabella is admirably strong and proud and resolute, but the role itself is confining — Isabella is distressed and enraged until the end, when she’s utterly perplexed — and Rico hasn’t quite found a way to fill the character with varied emotional colors.
But Rafaeli’s subtly anachronistic version, with a functional and clever set design by Annie Smart and an effectively anxiety-enhancing score by Brandon Walcott, is fast and furious and, just when it should be, funny.
Measure for Measure
Presented by California Shakespeare Theater
Where: Bruns Amphitheatre, 100 California Shakespeare Theatre Way, Orinda
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 8
Tickets: $20 to $72
Contact: (510) 548-9666 or www.calshakes.org