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Shakespeare never wrote another comedy after Measure for Measure, which some have taken as a sign that he was bored with the comic formulas of his age. And indeed, the play uses disguise, mistaken identity, rude mechanicals, romantic miscalculations, and all manner of Elizabethan devices in intriguingly complicated ways, as if its author were intent on seeing how far he could stretch the form before it would break. In a final reckoning in which one character condemns others to marriages that will undo them psychologically just as surely as another’s cruelty would have undone them physically, the Bard pushed beyond what most audiences would accept as funny.

That unplayable “happy” ending has been tripping up directors for four centuries. And the rest of this unwieldy comedy about governmental intolerance has proved equally problematic. In 1992, the Shakespeare Theatre threw movie stars and a smart, election-year interpretation into a Blade Runner–ish megamounting and was still unable to keep its plot persuasive much past intermission.

What a surprise, then, that Aaron Posner’s breath-catchingly original Folger Shakespeare Library staging is arresting not only the moment the lights come up on a young woman whose prayers are drowned out by orgasmic moans and the cracking of whips, but also right through that troublesome ending. Cogent, funny, effortlessly political, it doesn’t for a second sacrifice the work’s more disturbing undercurrents. The play begins to soar as its characters debate justice and mercy in a liberal society that has abruptly turned into a one-strike-you’re-out autocracy, and its final image—theoretically joyous but tainted by the corrupting influence of unbridled power—haunts you right out into the street. The shadow of the Supreme Court Building down the block seems suddenly darker and more forbidding than it did on the way in.

Hardly sounds like a laff riot, does it? Well, Measure for Measure’s humor has always been alloyed with other qualities—irony, rue, here and there a trace of acid. They spring from a plot that centers on a regime change: a Duke (Mark Zeisler) who’s been lax about enforcing morality among his subjects goes into seclusion, hoping his authoritarian deputy Angelo will clean things up while he’s away. The Folger’s Angelo (Ian Merrill Peakes) is a stiff-backed constructionist whose fraction-of-an-inch adjustment of the Duke’s chair upon taking power says everything you need to know about him. He’s soon enforcing every repressive statute on the books. Isabella (Karen Peakes), the strong-willed young woman who was praying as the lights came up, begs him to temper his rigid justice with humanity when her brother is sentenced to death for impregnating his fiancée. Angelo, captivated by her beauty if not her arguments, hears her out, then proposes a cruel trade: her virtue for her brother’s life. The pain in her eyes matches the lust in his, and the rest of the tale is fueled by her fury.

As much as Shakespeare was playing with 17th-century theatrical idioms here, he was also doing things that can be read today as modern—giving a free pass to society’s lowlifes in that final sequence, for instance, while punishing those who err in comparatively bourgeois ways. He also refuses to pretty up the power plays of those who exercise authority. The problem is that while the ending feels as strikingly contemporary as those of Bertolt Brecht, Joe Orton, or Christopher Durang, the rest of the show doesn’t really prepare audiences for it. So directors are stuck: Play the moralistic arguments too earnestly and the evening turns leaden; play them for laughs and they won’t support the finale.

Posner’s solution is to create an environment in which a contemporary sort of black comedy can thrive. Sound designer Neil McFadden augments nervous, pizzicato synthesizer riffs with pop songs. Devon Painter’s costuming matches sleek leather jackets and tailored dresses with a prisoner’s orange jumpsuit. Daniel Conway’s ribbed glass panels, lit eerily by John Hoey, offer a glistening backdrop just translucent enough to allow glimpses of shadowy background figures. Privacy is at a premium in this world of moralizers, but where there’s repression, there’s bound to be resistance, and that’s where Posner finds his comic inspiration. The director punks the scalp of an unapologetic bawd (David Marks) with tiny pigtails and unleashes a gossip (David Emerson Toney) whose tongue lashes even those who try to help him.

Of all the inventive notions Posner has had for enlivening the evening’s complex philosophical debates, though, the one with the biggest payoff is the rounding out of his uniformly terrific acting company with uproariously expressive marionettes designed by Aaron Cromie and manipulated by actors Tony Nam and Todd Scofield. Both black-clad performers become surprisingly invisible behind the more colorful—and colorfully riotous—3-foot figures for whom they provide voices and character-defining movements. Together (at times literally so, with the two men manipulating a single puppet), they portray about a third of the play’s characters, including an aging but still coquettish whorehouse madam, a malaprop-prone constable, and an obstreperous convict who starts a knock-down, drag-out puppet brawl with a one-armed, lisping executioner.

Apart from being a clever way of reducing payroll costs, this also has the effect of streamlining the play’s arguments, separating comic byplay from serious debate in a neatly theatrical way. There’s definite method to Posner’s madness: The characters played by puppets are at once incidental to the action of the play and marginal to the life of the society in which it takes place. Prostitutes, policemen, priests—Shakespeare makes them comically individual, but they’re not free spirits. Limited by their place in the world, they exist only to serve—and to be manipulated by circumstance and social expectation.

When Zeisler’s chameleonic Duke decides to go undercover as a friar, he adopts a puppet persona, too, an apt way of expressing both how far he’s pulled away from decision making and how manipulative his actions still are. When he drops the puppeteering and reveals himself at the end, this Duke is not the sympathetic figure most productions try to make him: the concerned helpmate who aids Isabella in her efforts to free her brother. In the audience’s eyes, it was the puppet who helped Isabella; the Duke is still a despot. The justice he dispenses is no less authoritarian than the injustice his subordinate meted out in his absence. Neither is his prescription for a society that’s still—after his laxity and his deputy’s harshness—wracked by amorality. What’s his new cure for social ills? Same as the old cure, of course: Embrace the sanctity of marriage.

Laugh at that, if you can.

A pop singer marries her high-school sweetheart and is about to give birth to their second child when he tells her not only that he’s gay but also that he’s HIV-positive. When she threatens to take the kids and leave, he unbuckles his pants, says, “If I’m gonna die, then we’re all gonna die,” and begins to force himself on her.

This actually happened to Jevetta Steele, a singer whose ethereal “Calling You” garnered an Oscar nomination in the 1988 film Baghdad Cafe. Though the experience may not seem obvious material for a sassy, feel-good-about-yourself musical, that’s more or less what Steele and her co-author/director Thomas W. Jones II have tried to fashion from it in Two Queens One Castle.

They’ve done a few things right, chief among them hiring bracing young force of nature Felicia Curry to play the singer modeled on the author and having her lay the audience’s ears back with her first number. As her down-low hubby, they’ve cast TC Carson, a string bean of a charmer who looks a bit like Will Smith and has a pleasantly substantial baritone. And they’ve allowed the personable Gary E. Vincent to provide a smidgen of depth to the cipher designated as Hubby’s boyfriend.

But they’ve saddled them and a three-voice backup group with a funk/soul score by William Hubbard and J.D. Steele (Jevetta’s brother) that’s all repeated choruses and no lyrical development, and arranged it for keyboards, bass, and overemphatic percussion in ways that make the show play like a lounge-act confessional. Jones seems entirely aware that the lyrics (“My name Wife/His name Husband”) aren’t communicating much, so he’s urged his performers to sell them to the rafters.

Some belligerently dumb design work doesn’t help matters. The same Daniel Conway whose ribbed translucent panels provide a deeply mysterious backdrop at the Folger has at MetroStage placed two-way mirrors at the rear of a graceless blue set dotted by candles placed in what look like sawed-off plastic drinking glasses. There are also coffinlike blue benches that leave skid marks on the painted floor every time they’re moved. The mirrors pick up reflections of the white microphone cords snaking past the shoulder blades of women inexplicably attired in backless dresses, and when the men take off their shirts, revealing similar cords, they all look like refugees from an iPod commercial.

The audience has plenty of time to notice all of this, what with lyrics that essentially mark time, choreography that, for reasons best left to the director, includes a beachball-throwing sequence involving the audience, and a plot line that may be true to Steele’s experience but doesn’t suggest she’s figured out how to give it dramatic shape. The title Two Queens One Castle is clever, but that’s where the inspiration ends.CP