There are times when I want to scream at a director doing Shakespeare: For God's sake, if you don't like the damn play, don't stage it. For this Colorado Shakespeare Festival production, Scott Williams has tarted up Measure for Measure with all kinds of extraneous trickery: red umbrellas and vinyl boots; swags of cloth hanging from the ceiling; an in-the-round presentation that has audience members seated on stage behind the action so that those in front can watch them wince as the actors come too close, or snooze a little, or move their legs restlessly; storm sound effects (left over from King Lear?); something that looks like confetti raining down now and then and turning red at the end; a taser in the courtroom scene because Williams apparently thinks tasers are funny (he might want to ask inmates who recently said they saw Marvin Booker held down and tased by Denver deputies until he stopped breathing about that). A few characters are traditionally dressed; the costume pieces of others look like discards from TV shows of the '80s and '90s. And the low-life characters, with their Brooklyn accents, seem to have wandered in from an audition for The Sopranos. Or perhaps Guys and Dolls.
None of this would matter if the leads were strong or had genuinely come to grips with the material, but they weren't and they hadn't.
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Measure for Measure is called a problem play for a reason. The action begins when the Duke of Vienna, fearing his city has become too licentious under his kindly rule, cedes power to a rigid, puritanical deputy, Angelo, and leaves to pursue a life of contemplation. Angelo immediately decides to enforce the state's ban on fornication and sentences to death a young man named Claudio, who has impregnated his fiancée. Claudio's sister, Isabella, is about to enter a convent. She comes before Angelo to plead for Claudio's life and, seeing in her the saintliness he longs to possess himself, Angelo falls — in every sense of the word. He will spare Claudio's life, Angelo tells Isabella, in return for the use of her body.
A prolonged meditation on justice and mercy, shadowed at every turn by tragedy, Measure for Measure is a comedy only in that it ends in marriage rather than murder. This means a director must be entirely clear about the tone he wants to set: when to go for laughs, when to let the language and action speak for themselves. He faces interpretative difficulties, too. The Duke does not leave Vienna as he says he will, but lingers to watch from the sidelines and, when he sees the injustices Angelo has put in motion, begins plotting to set things right. He could do this with a snap of his fingers, but instead, he torments both Claudio and Isabella almost to madness. Is he testing them? Is he less virtuous than we're initially led to believe? In the Denver Center's fine production a few years back, John Hutton (currently CSF's Lear) made the Duke an amiable doofus who simply didn't understand the effects of his machinations on others. But neither Williams nor Robert Sicular, who plays the role here, seems to have figured out the Duke's character or motivation. Sicular simply walks through the play saying his lines as if they had no meaning.
Measure for Measure
Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 6, University Theatre, University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-0554, www.coloradoshakes.org.
As Angelo, Chip Persons affects a masklike inpassivity throughout, even while flogging himself. (That's another distracting directorial decision. I've seen a couple of Angelos flog themselves in the past, but how do you justify this medieval trope in a world of red umbrellas and business suits?) The protestations of Lenne Klingaman's Isabella feel actor-y and ungrounded. Angelo and Isabella are two of the most complex characters Shakespeare ever created, passionate and conflicted beneath their calm, unworldly exteriors. Isabella's virtue is in some ways as coldly destructive as Angelo's open descent into evil; the difference is that, broken by grief and suffering, she is finally able to feel empathy. Early in the play, pleading with Angelo, she utters some of the most beautiful words ever written about mercy; by the play's end, it's a quality she's able to embody. None of this is evident in these portrayals.
The liveliest and most interesting performances come from Stephen Weitz as Pompey and Timothy Orr as Lucio. And when I heard Nick Henderson's imprisoned Claudio plead brokenly for his life, I finally felt — for just a few brief minutes — that I was seeing Shakespeare's Measure for Measure.