Hip-hop Bard 

Troupe debuts with concept Measure 4 Measure

A little naughtiness is in the air. Maybe spring has sprung. Perhaps we're seeing a last spasm of the indiscreet Clinton years or a preemptive response to a more conservative national government.

For some reason, more steam has been radiating from some of our smaller theaters. The stage has always been a place both for randy bedroom farce or mature scrutiny of love and attraction, and a couple of seasons ago, it seemed like a nude guy turned up in every other show. But the past few months have seen sexuality in full flower, and though there's been nothing X-rated, or even a "hard R," enough skin and skimpy underthings have been on display to raise eyebrows.

Along with a couple of Tennessee Williams revivals, boosting the demands for slips, some of Atlanta's younger troupes have addressed both darker and lighter aspects of sex in such plays as Jersey City, A Clockwork Orange and Baby With the Bathwater. The teasing trend continues with Rogue Planet's street-corner treatment of William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure.

Staging its first production, the budding theater dubs the play Measure 4 Measure, offering a concept Shakespeare that suggests a hip-hop musical straining to break loose from the blank verse. The enthusiastic cast of 20 include characters geared up as home boys and fly girls, identified by non-Shakespearean names like "G Money" and "Special Sauce." Director Montica Pes only sporadically reconciles the original text with the notions of pop "flava," but key moments of Measure 4 Measure undeniably click.

The setting is vice-ridden Vienna, where licentiousness and sexual commerce have become unmanageable. Duke Vincentio (Jeff Feldman) decides to travel abroad, leaving his steadfast lieutenant Angelo (Damon Boggess) to mete out justice. But the Duke's hidden agenda is to keep tabs on the city and Angelo's administration by returning incognito as a monk: Feldman disguises himself with a pair of glasses, like Clark Kent.

As the Duke's "bad cop," Angelo chooses to enforce a barbaric, unused law against "lechery," and thus unsuspecting Claudio (Rob Beams) is arrested and condemned for getting Juliet (Alison Hastings) with child. The only means of saving Claudio from the chopping block is his sister Isabella (Stacy Melich), who's on the verge of becoming a bona fide Sister at a convent.

When Isabella confronts Angelo and argues, with increasing conviction, the case for mercy, it's one of those Shakespearean moments that holds up no matter where or how freely it's performed. Left alone, Angelo discovers that he's seized with lust for morally upright Isabella, and Boggess recites his soliloquy while flanked by overheated couples and his "mental image" of Melich, undulating and less modestly dressed. He offers to spare Claudio's life only if Isabella will give up her virginity to him.

Like other loose adaptations of Shakespeare comedies, Measure 4 Measure frequently finds actors trying to be funny in a contemporary mode at cross-purposes with the original dialogue. As the clownish "bawd" Pompey, Matthew Myers eagerly attempts some cocky shtick as a would-be "player," only he's tripped up by the text. Jason Armit might be onto something playing constable Elbow as a self-important security guard, but he gets little chance to flesh out the idea.

As the big-mouthed sharpie Lucio, leather-jacketed John Benzinger has better fortune, amusingly pimp-strolling across the stage in his leather jacket or busting moves with his homies. Boggess makes Angelo a superbly oily politico, and with his power suits and slick-backed hair, he could be a junior version of Gordon Gekko.

Rogue Planet treats Measure like a jiggy version of a satyr play, with snippets of funk and techno pop between most scenes and outbursts of bump 'n' grind dancing striving to evoke Bob Fosse. Some musical intrusions are awkward, others more graceful, like the amusing sequence in which spurned Mariana (Claire Bronson) weeps over Angelo's photograph to Macy Gray's "I Try," then her angry girlfriends urge her to be more assertive while "You Make Me Sick" plays.

Shakespeare ends Measure on an unconvincingly upbeat note, but Rogue Planet puts an appropriately grim spin on it. Isabella has few lines in the play's final moments, but Pes' staging and Melich's expression suggest that Isabella has found herself caught in exactly the situation she spent the whole play trying to avoid. Measure 4 Measure concludes on such a strong lingering note that you wish that the entire production measured up to it.

Measure 4 Measure plays through April 8 at the Art Farm, 835 Wylie St., at 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sun. $10. 404-627-6160.

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