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Measure for Measure

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Measure for Measure is considered a "problem play" for a reason, though not usually for the reason the Pearl Theatre Company's new production of it is so problematic. William Shakespeare's muddled-morality drama has enough inconsistencies of its own that to unleash on it the hodge-podge of acting styles that director Beatrice Terry has is to do it no favors. So why does it remain so fascinating?

For all its intractability, Measure for Measure remains one of Shakespeare's most universal issue plays, addressing topics of morality and hypocrisy that are still with us today. We can innately understand the desire of Vienna's Duke Vincentio to do well by his increasingly wayward citizens by placing his apparently virtuous colleague, Lord Angelo, in charge: If he really wants to change things, why not appoint the man who'll strike most effectively at the root of the trouble?

Even if Angelo's concepts of morality don't mesh with ours - the play's central controversy is his imprisoning and threatening young Claudio for impregnating his fiancée - we can understand his desire to do good. And though we might shake our heads when Angelo offers Claudio's virginal, nunnery-headed sister Isabella the opportunity to free her brother, if only she'll sleep with Angelo, it's not as if even these ideas are foreign to our society today.

This makes Measure for Measure a series of power plays in which everyone is tested, everyone passes, and everyone fails. That it can't be classified (or performed) as just a comedy or just a tragedy is precisely the point: Life also defies clear-cut categorization. And if Shakespeare's writing lacks the formal sheen of his more famous works, this play contains some of his most modern, incisive work, so even-handed and thorough in its exploration of good, bad, and indifference that it will never go out of style.

Terry pays close heed to the play's timelessness, imposing no overriding concept on any element. The set (by Susan Zeeman Rogers) is adaptable and noncommittal, a modernist grey box that can become any locale needed, and the costumes (Frank Champa) are lusciously rich in their period appropriations.

Terry has also apparently advised her actors to forget about drawing extra-theatrical connections (say, to the Bush administration?), and instead told them to just play the text. And that's where Shakespeare's motley stew of ideas boils over for Terry and her company: No two actors are performing in the same production.

Rachel Botchan is squarely at the Pearl, and thus connects with the conflicted Isabella in the most appropriately human way: Her torment at being used as a plaything and her contradictory feelings for Claudio register more strongly than anything else here. Sean McNall gives his lines layered, resonant readings of a touring Shakespearean; if sometimes a bit much, they help his morally unpredictable Angelo convincingly develop as a power-hungry bureaucrat who doesn't recognize his urges until he can afford to satisfy them.

But Noel Vélez's Claudio is little more than a college production's hunky naïf understudy. Robert Hock, as senior advisor Escalus, is Polonius in a summer-stock Hamlet. Lucio, an oft-criticizing clown with his own clouded background, is presented by Dominic Cuskern as though this were a laughless, avant-garde production performed on stage covered with broken glass. As the Duke, who goes undercover after abdicating his power to learn what happens when Right makes Might, Ron Simons speeds and poses through his performance, giving an unsuccessful two-hour audition for an under-fire paper-pusher on Law & Order.

So it's never possible to believe this Vienna as a unified world, which makes the colliding concerns of most involved almost perilously quaint. For a play that requires a steady tone and an even steadier directorial hand to make emotional sense, much of what's given here is never entirely adequate.

Only in the last scene does everyone simultaneously occupy the Pearl stage. It's a typical Shakespeare finale directed typically - everyone comes onstage, focus shifts madly between the various characters - but as the Duke must frantically correct the messes he's caused while masquerading as a meddlesome friar, there's no clearer statement of how wrongs can be righted and rights can easily be wronged.

It works so well that you get an unusually strong vision of Measure for Measure as not a mish-mash of disconnected ideas, but as a neglected masterpiece that speaks to our time as strongly as it must have spoken to Shakespeare's. It may take too long to reach that destination, but the opportunity to be acquainted anew with a work this surprisingly relevant at least makes getting there more than half the fun.


Measure for Measure
Through April 9
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, with one intermission
Pearl Theatre Company, 80 St Marks Place (eastern extension of 8th Street) between First and Second Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Theatermania