He hems, he haws, he stutters and splutters, but there's never any doubt who's in charge of the Globe Theatre's nimble yet stately "Measure for Measure," hanging its chandeliers at Brooklyn's St. Ann's Warehouse through Jan. 1. As played by the Globe's leading actor and departing artistic director, Mark Rylance, the distracted Duke of Vienna turns over his city to a stern interim chief, Angelo, like an absent-minded father handing over his car keys before rushing off on a business trip.
This is a trick, of course - by seeming to leave, then lingering in disguise, the Duke is playing out his own far-reaching moral program for his dissipated city. But you won't catch this judge in high dudgeon; Rylance instead recites the Duke's windy pronouncements distractedly, tells his parables offhandedly and gives his philosophizing a meek but flinty resignation. In Rylance's impish, improvisatory rendering, this Duke is doddering like a fox.
It's a trick that neatly parallels the marvelous feat achieved by director John Dove's production: While wearing the guise of the Globe's trademark "original practices," which reproduce Elizabethan costumes, makeup and music, this is a thoroughly modern, utterly accessible production of a play that's intellectually meaty but often dramatically gristly.
Like "Tartuffe," "Measure for Measure" is now routinely invoked for its putative relevance in a conservative age. But there's a big trap in the obvious villainy of the Puritan administrator Angelo (Liam Brennan), who institutes a zero-tolerance policy on illicit sex, while grabbing a little for himself. Yes, Cliffs Notes' readers, Angelo stands for hypocrisy in high places, but many renderings of "Measure" can begin to seem rather coldly self-righteous in revealing that shocker.
Thankfully, there's not a shred of sanctimony in this knockabout rendition - certainly not in its nervy little Duke, nor in its delightfully ripe, unrepentant gallery of lowlifes, from the undeservedly haughty Lucio (Colin Hurley) to the sneering pimp Pompey (John Dougall). More crucially, there's a bracing strain of the ridiculous about the chaste young novitiate Isabella, the outraged object of Angelo's lust (and not only because she's played, per the Globe's Elizabethan rules, by a man, Edward Hogg). Her scenes with Brennan's dour, thoughtful Angelo bristle not simply with his arrogance but with her brittleness. Angelo may be a pig in prig's clothing, but Isabella is just a prig. There's an unmistakable screech in her voice when she later speaks the line that could be her motto: "I have no superfluous leisure!"
Dove's production is full of such illuminating readings. Mocking Angelo's severity, Escalus (Bill Stewart) puns the word "justice" as "just ice"; the daft cop Elbow (Roger Watkins) makes "respected" sound like the dirty word he apparently thinks it is. Pompey and Lucio's ribald double entendres have the unseemly relish of in-jokes we're not sure we want to be in on.
It is Rylance, above all, who makes us hear the text anew, by stammering through it, chopping it up and adding a soundtrack of murmurs and sighs. In a performance rife with delicious moments, a particular highlight comes when, disguised as a monk, he adds an ellipsis to an excuse: He's on "special business," he explains, haltingly, "from His Holiness...." Not supplied with a name by Shakespeare, Rylance simply expels a tiny, endearing, "Yeah," at the end of the line.
This might be seen as mere winking - letting a bit of air out of the Bard, as only the Brits can do with their native poet. But by the time we reach the play's final, elaborate scene, we're more likely to feel the fresh air the Globe has breathed into the show like so many plangent, laughing-crying notes on a Renaissance-era oboe.