For its bizarre premise alone, Isabella, Pig Iron Theatre's take on Measure for Measure, is worth the ample effort the company invests in it - Shakespeare's tormented comedy stripped down, performed largely in his words and in the nude.

That's Isabella, superficially. But as it progresses, not always steadily, the Bard's words and plot acquire an eerie meaning. Isabella begins to explore mortality and the afterlife, and it becomes a tableau of alive minds over dead matter.

Lights come up on a morgue, occupied by the usual bodies and a mortician's attendant (Charles Conwell, wonderfully understated). He uncovers a dead woman and is mesmerized by her.

He slowly pulls shrouds from others. Eventually, he begins quoting Measure for Measure, assigning bodies different characters, speaking for them, propping them on gurneys, moving lifeless appendages for emphasis. Awkwardly, the corpses arise. Unsure of their body parts, they hobble to portray their roles.

Isabella (a pallid and haunting Birgit Huppuch) is Measure for Measure's heroine, the moral compass of a play that - when its actors are supposed to be alive - skews the definition of morality. Here, with actors portraying dead people who play Meaure for Measure's living fictional roles, the play turns inside out, then begins twisting, too.

Isabella laments "I have a brother who is condemned to die!" or a character talks of "better times to come," and the lines pack new punches.

Dan Rothenberg, Pig Iron's co-artistic director, comfortably exploits Isabella's possibilities, and the cast (which also includes Dito van Reigersberg, Gabriel Quinn Bauriedel, Corinna Burns and Randy Rand) is exceptional in its reawakening. Lisi Stoessel's dead-on makeup is vital to Isabella's success.

The play doesn't work throughout. After coming to terms with its grotesqueness - many (not me) find it frequently funny - I decided it had nowhere to go; the 85-minute one-act's middle drags. Then Shakespeare deals with death, and Isabella whopped me again.

A caveat: The playbill offers a scant synopsis of Measure for Measure. You'll find fuller versions on the Web. See Isabella knowing Shakespeare's plot, for the full measure of Pig Iron's rendering. - Howard Shapiro

$20. 7 p.m. today, Thursday through next Sunday, and Sept. 11-15; 3 p.m. Saturday and Sept. 15, which will be followed by a conversation with Mary Roach, author of Stiff. At Ice Box Projects Space, 1400 N. American St.