Ensemble Theatre’s "Measure for Measure"
Ensemble Theatre’s production of William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure” uses changing videos on screens in the background to intensify the action, mood or intrigue of the play. (David Bazemore photo)

The Ensemble Theatre Company of Santa Barbara boldly offers William Shakespeare’s suspenseful drama “Measure for Measure” as the opening play in its new season. If you’re a fan of Shakespeare, you’re in luck.

This production, directed by ETC artistic director Jonathan Fox, is rich with creative staging, set design, technology and potent acting. It also connects to the current day a tale that the bard first presented to a newly crowned King James in 1604, when a harsh run of the plague was wiping out a sixth of the London population.

Unfortunately, the themes and the plot also ring pointedly true in these times of the MeToo movement, when many devastating stories of sexual harassment and assault on the part of men in power are coming to light.

When a duke-in-need-of-a-break turns over power to a deputy, zero tolerance takes on new meaning and a young man is sentenced to death for impregnating his fiancée. In a desperate attempt to get his sentence reduced, he asks his sister, who is about to take her vows as a nun, to intervene. He assumes that the hyper-puritanical deputy might be influenced by her piety.

What happens instead is that her virtue inflames the deputy in ways he didn’t expect. He offers a deal: her virginity for her brother’s life. When she refuses, he exerts power in several different forms.

While lives hang in the balance, a disguised duke sets in motion solutions that evoke the mistaken identities and shenanigans of Shakespeare’s comedies, complete with reconciliations and weddings — except without the comedy.

A collage of screens on stage, a single chair (with some techno surprises of its own) and a portal to much that is unseen make up the entire set. Changing videos on the screens intensify the action, mood or intrigue.

Ensemble Theatre’s "Measure for Measure"

Richard Baird stars as the deputy and Lily Gibson as Isabella in Ensemble Theatre’s production of “Measure for Measure.” (David Bazemore photo)

Richard Baird as the deputy, and returning ETC actors Abdul-Khaliq Murtadha as the Duke and Lily Gibson as the novice Isabella each command the stage, representing forces in each of us and in society. As the dutiful Provost, Tim McManus offers steadfast reason and duty. His lines are the easiest to comprehend, too.

Brian Ibsen and Matthew Floyd Miller, as morally “fluid,” colorfully attired petty criminals, walk the line between comic and pathetic. Trevor Peterson, who shone in last season’s “Dancing Lessons” and as Biff in “Death of a Salesman,” appears as the imprisoned suitor. Santa Barbara actors Robert Lesser, Tiffany Story and Paige Tautz bring comic relief, sympathetic wickedness and desperate virtue, respectively.

For fans of the bard, this production offers a complete rendering of the play. It’s fast-paced (though more than 2½ hours long), and the leads capture the essence of their characters: virtuous, flawed, beneficent, torn, innocent.

If you’re not a Shakespeare nerd, brush up on the story before you take your seat. The dialogue and meter are arcane and not delivered with intonation that elucidates meaning for a contemporary audience.

With proper preparation, this production is strong and highlights the timeless nature the corrupting nature of power and the risks of loyalty. Without it, you could be left in the dark.

ETC dramaturg Anna Jensen deserves special mention for providing a detailed overview and historical background in her pre-show talk. Her command of the material — as well as her ability to sustain one complex, grammatically impeccable, extemporaneous sentence after another, and to throw in quippy commentary and still leave plenty for the audience to discover — enriched the experience tremendously.

Everything about this production indicates we’re in for another season of the quality theater we’ve come to expect from ETC.

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— Local art critic Judith Smith-Meyer is a 24/7 appreciator of the creative act.