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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
F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theater, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, 973-408-5600.
$24 to $38. Play runs through August 22.
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