Shakespeare addresses this and related issues in Measure for Measure, one of his "problem plays" in that it layers tragedy, satire, and broad comedy in one frequently dense ball of manipulation and deception. Cleveland Public Theatre has dubbed its version M4M and features six men who play all 18 roles, male and female, just as in the Bard's time. And it's a rousing evening, featuring one astonishingly fine performance and others that are quite good.
Appearance trumps reality right from the start, as the Duke of Vienna announces that he's splitting and leaving his town in the hands of his deputy, Angelo. But the clever Duke disguises himself as a friar, so that he can hang around and see why his city has become so corrupt. Angelo takes charge and decides to rule without mercy, including executing young and charming Claudio for knocking up his fiancée, Juliet (a sure way to prevent further incidence of premarital sex).
Of course, Angelo reveals himself as a craven hypocrite when Claudio's virginal, convent-bound sister, Isabella, shows up to beg for her brother's life. All her pleading gives Angelo a chubby, and he offers to trade Claudio's life for a Viennese crotch waltz with the nun-to-be. From there, as with most of old Will's work, the plot threads tangle and twist until all is resolved in a rush at the end.
This production has a sweaty and muscular sensuality, due to director Craig J. George's imaginative use of the playing area and costume designer Jenniver Sparano's B&D getups. The stage looks like a small football field, with seating along the sidelines.
Michael Mauldin turns in an outstanding performance as the Duke, caressing and shaping his lines with assurance. When speaking in his guise as an Italian friar, he alters his sonorous voice to sound eerily like Chico Marx. And when he finally gets around to nailing Angelo, his fury is both jolting and coruscating. Geoff Knox registers well as Angelo, conveying this shallow man's morally flexible attitude toward sin (bad for others, dandy for him). And Ashley D. Davenport provides crisp and amusing turns as the old Lord Escalus, brothel assistant Pompey, and a nun.
In the primary cross-gender roles of Isabella and brothel owner Mistress Overdone, John Paul Soto fits well with his short stature and dark, sweet face. But his words often tumble out with more speed than textual clarity, turning his speeches into word jazz -- pleasant to hear, but hard to comprehend. Andrew Marikis gives his all to the cartoonish character Lucio, the wastrel who knows that sin can't be crushed for long. And Rob Mayes is a hunk as Claudio and nicely vulnerable as Juliet.
There's fresh energy at work at CPT, under new artistic director Raymond Bobgan, and M4M is a terrific example of how exciting this theater can be.