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This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on August 18, 1999. All rights reserved.

Review: `Measure for Measure’

Savvy audiences will notice more than a glimmer of

Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr in Bruce Turk’s portrayal of Angelo

in the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival’s "Measure for Measure."

As the high-minded, "outward sainted" deputy in the service

of Vincentio, Duke of Vienna, Turk’s stolid, Starr-like countenance

is one of the more clever conceits in director Paul Mullins’ staging.

Stiff-necked in his Edwardian suit, Turk’s Angelo is sternly familiar

and familiarly self-righteous in this decidedly unsympathetic role.

That Angelo’s crusade by proxy has been transported to turn-of-the-century

Vienna in this production, works well enough, even if it adds nothing

particularly revelatory to Shakespeare’s slyly subversive concerns

for the shaky moral and ethical fibers of the decaying society that

was his subject, 300 years earlier.

Whether in Shakespeare’s Vienna, or in the neighborhood of Arthur

Schnitzler and Sigmund Freud, we are troubled by this study of moral

behavior that prompts Angelo to attempt to deflower Isabella (Vivienne

Benesch), a virtuous young woman about to enter a convent. This, in

exchange for the life of her brother Claudio (Eric Hoffmann), sentenced

to death for fornication. We are also troubled by the Duke’s (David

Chandler) rash exit from a city about to be purged, in his name, by

an amoral do-gooder. And what are we to make of the duplicitous Duke’s

behavior and his own designs on Isabella? And is Isabella not also

capable of manipulating men and events to suit her own, possibly less

than completely saintly, agenda?

Laughter comes as a relief as we watch Angelo try to reinstate antiquated

statutes in order to reform a city where "liberty plucks justice

by the nose." And so there is now a death penalty for fornication,

with the first victim being young noble Claudio. Though intent on

marrying his fiancee — the beloved and very pregnant Juliet —

he is now guilty of a crime.

Crimes of the heart multiply as Angelo lusts after Isabella, a sister

of Claudio’s about to enter a nunnery, and as the kindly Duke, in

the guise of a snooping Monk, becomes infatuated with Isabella. Add

to this configuration, Angelo’s jilted fiancee Mariana (spiritedly

addressed by Lisa Powers), a blundering constable, a madam of low

regard and high fashion, and a host of foolish gentlefolk, and you

have another of Shakespeare’s carefully convoluted caprices.

Traditionally called "a problem play," "Measure for Measure"

proves exactly that for Mullins, who may have been unable to get enough

of his key actors to plunge headlong into this thoroughly rancid and

rabidly psychosexual world. If there is daring in Shakespeare’s plot,

in which nothing is believable and everything is as crazily resolved

as in "Alice in Wonderland," only a few of the actors take

the challenge and run the risk of being as outrageous as needed. For

the most part, the dynamics that Mullins affixes to the play is one

of mock pretension; not exactly wrong-headed when considering how

superficially and superciliously Shakespeare reveals his characters.

Unfortunately what is even more troubling in this unsavory comedy,

in which grave plotting render grave results, is Vivienne Benesch’s

intense, but rarely affecting, performance as Isabella. Benesch is,

at best, only half convincing as the half-crazed yet chaste heroine

and catalyst who sparks the obsessively sexual, indeed sado-masochistic,

goings on in old Vienna. Instead of the icily seductive religiosity

and the raging suppressed sexuality that might propel a really hot

Isabella who is an unwitting magnet and an unheeded danger signal

to both Angelo and the Duke, Benesch offers only occasionally some

mildly obsessive clues to her perversity.

As there is little motivation for the Duke’s actions, including his

sudden departure from Vienna, or his reasons for ending his sojourn

to become a marriage arranger for half of Vienna, one can’t totally

blame David Chandler for relying totally on irony for his tone and

temperament. It’s a workable escape clause for Chandler, who never

lets us forget, even beneath the mock monk’s robes, that he is reading

between the lines.

Mark Alhadeff portrays Claudio with the prerequisite air of wholesome

perplexity. Bradford Cover is a crowd-pleaser as Lucio, that talkative

"fellow of much license." I suspect that Cover’s delightfully

malicious, self-congratulatory troublemaker is finding more humor

in Shakespeare’s lines than have ever been exposed before. Cristine

McMurdo-Wallis looked and sounded appropriately used and abused as

the crimson-gowned Mistress Overdone. The funny enough Eric Hoffmann

made his appropriately lewd contributions as Pompey, Overdone’s servant

Jeffrey Bender offers more comic relief as the ignorant blundering

constable, as does Todd Curran, as the town fool, Froth. Possibly

the most impressive bit of realistic acting is by Robert Hock, as

Escalus, the wise old counselor who abets Angelo in his deputation.

If there are any parallels to be drawn between what Shakespeare saw

then as the sin city of the western world and our own society, it

is that the same pimps, bawds, and vices that cluttered the streets

and jails then are rather permanent universal fixtures, and not to

be easily outlawed.

In Mullins’ vision of Vienna, sex and style is restrained and muted,

at least the wanton ways of its citizenry are kept out of view. A

couple of slow-motion tableaux suggest that Strauss, or more factually

in-house composer Nicholas Kitsopolous, may be the cause of their

debauchery. Michael Schweikardt’s functional, wall-like partitions

share the stage with a single door that allows numerous fluidly devised

exits and entrances. Linda Cho’s conscientiously drab costumes and

Michael Giannitti’s lighting provide conventional enough atmospherics.

Notwithstanding the bitter ironies, persuasive perversities, and dubious

moralizing, "Measure for Measure" may be the Bard’s darkest

three-hour comedy. And who but this unworthy viewer would admit to

it being a frustrating and tedious affair.

— Simon Saltzman

Measure for Measure, New Jersey Shakespeare Festival,

F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theater, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, 973-408-5600.

$24 to $38. Play runs through August 22.

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