"Measure for Measure" is a problem play about a decadent world in which flawed characters behave badly. The play's twin poles are sexual obsession and justice. Directors often drape it in their darkest devices.

"Measure for Measure" is a problem play about a decadent world in which flawed characters behave badly. The play's twin poles are sexual obsession and justice. Directors often drape it in their darkest devices.

Not this time.

The production that kicked off the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2011 season Friday night is a frothy romp that plays like feel-good comedy. OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch, who directed, says he thinks "Measure" is funnier than its reputation — "funny with a bite."

The New Testament title points to the seriousness of play's theme, the nature of justice and forgiveness. Yet comedy there be, for sure. But the playing in this production is so broad that the laughs, while plentiful, swamp whatever bite there might have been.

Rauch has set the play in the urban America of the 1970s, which is an OK fit with a certain sweaty claustrophobia in the play's atmosphere (a dungeon, a whorehouse, people caught between various existential rocks and hard places).

He's also given it a Latin vibe, with some of the main characters played by Latino actors and the female mariachi band Las Colibri lacing the world of the play with traditional and contemporary Latin music. These women sing like angels, but it's not clear what they're doing in this dark little duchy.

The set is an expansive, gray, generic interior that could be an unemployment or motor vehicles office, designer Clint Ramos' take on the soulless, utilitarian esthetic of bureaucracy.

Windows at the rear of the Angus Bowmer stage afford glimpses of hidden places, including an episode in which Mistress Overdone (Cristofer Jean), the madam of the play's bordello, is revealed to be a man in drag when the cops rip off his bra. I have no idea what this is about.

Audiences and critics have long found "Measure for Measure" unsatisfying, in part due to a deep ambiguity. Like its fellow problem plays "All's Well That Ends Well" and "Troilus and Cressida," "Measure" mixes unpleasant characters and gritty themes with a pat comic ending that's artificial and unbelievable.

Since the play is not often done, a quick recap may be in order. Wise Duke Vincentio of Vienna (Anthony Heald), convinced he's been too lax in matters of sexual morality and vice, leaves the lusty town in the hands of his law-and-order deputy Angelo (René Millán), a tyrant, hypocrite and would-be rapist.

Angelo condemns young Claudio (Frankie J. Alvarez) to death for getting his bride-to-be pregnant. When Claudio's sister, the rigidly pious Isabela (Stephanie Beatriz), pleads with Angelo for Claudio's life, Angelo, seized by a kind of fierce arousal known to puritans, offers Isabela a deal: Sleep with him and he'll let her brother go.

It must be perpetually tempting to view Shakespeare's Renaissance Vienna (which always feels more like London anyway) through the dark glass of our world. Don't sexual hijinks wind up sending another master of the universe crashing and burning every week or so? A world of moral decay, corrupt governance, lies, hypocrisy, fanaticism and ill will? We can relate to that!

But there's nobody to root for. Consider the unsavory Lucio (Kenajuan Bentley), a slanderer, a liar, a snitch, and a man who abandoned his pregnant girlfriend. Lucio has this production's funniest lines, and one of the best when he cynically suggests that sexual misbehavior will not go away "'til eating and drinking be put down."

Bentley gives Lucio a roguish charm, playing him as a '70s street hustler who'd be less at home in the Duke's court than in a downtown disco with a coke spoon dangling from his ear.

Anybody who doesn't know the play would take Beatriz's soft-spoken Isabela for an ingenue. The Isabela of the script is young and virginal, but she's a misguided fanatic.

As she prepares to enter a nunnery, she wishes the order were stricter. Rather than lose her virginity, she would rather her brother lose his head. She's as rigid as Angelo. There's something just unwholesome in her icy fury. There is nothing of this in Beatriz's performance.

The Duke is usually played as wise (there's a bit of a parallel with Prospero, who also orchestrates things), even though by placing power in the hands of Angelo he seems to set his will against nature. He lies to Isabela and lets things generally deteriorate before stepping in like a deus ex machina. Anthony Heald, in a three-piece suit, plays him like an impatient CEO brought in to turn around a foundering company, especially in that too-long final scene that's always hard to sit through.

It's one of the play's little oddities that the first half, a disturbing meditation on the psychology of lust and hypocrisy, is more entertaining than the second half, a dubious allegory with a happy ending.

Efforts to reveal the inner life of a play through innovative stagings deserve our applause. I don't go to a Shakespeare play to see a bloodless museum piece. Shakespeare should make you feel challenged, disturbed, punched in the guts. This "Measure" had moments that seemed to promise something revelatory, but they passed fleetingly.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.