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THEATER REVIEW

The Bard but breezy

'Measure for Measure' production from Globe Theatre in London is funny and entertaining but ignores the darkness at the play's core.

November 14, 2005|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

Full of unsympathetic characters and wild deviations of plot, Shakespeare's so-called problem plays are meditations on excess that helped shape the tragic vision of the masterpieces to come.

In exploring the impossibility of ever reforming human nature or society, he sometimes paints himself into a corner (in the unfinished "Timon of Athens," for instance). But "Measure for Measure" delves so deeply into corruption as an inescapable state of being that it continues to speak to us across the centuries.

Very, very adept at making us laugh at all the strategies that save the key characters from the consequences of their actions, John Dove's uneven all-male production for Shakespeare's Globe Theatre arrived at the Freud Playhouse on Thursday courtesy of UCLA Live.

Lighted by chandeliers and performed on a unit set with two curtained arches for entrances, this transplanted London staging evokes a performance from Shakespeare's time while also offering some highly contemporary interpretations of the text.

Chief among them is Mark Rylance's brilliantly idiosyncratic portrayal of the Duke, played as a godlike authority figure in many productions but here as a bumbler caught up in increasingly desperate improvisations. Speaking Shakespeare as if you don't know what you're going to say next cannot be easy, yet Rylance (the company's artistic director) not only manages it but adds tricks of timing that bring laughter to some of the work's thorniest passages.

The Duke mediates the conflict in the play between sardonic sexual license and shrill, defensive chastity, setting the plot in motion by declaring that someone else needs to clean up the social mess that his lax governance has allowed. So he appoints the upright Angelo as his deputy and before long a law against premarital sex is in place -- a law that Angelo ignores when trying to bed the trainee nun Isabella.

No predatory monster, Liam Brennan's Angelo is rather a dutiful bureaucrat who seems almost bemused by his unexpected descent into iniquity. Brennan speaks the text softly in a style almost as distinctively personal and compelling as Rylance's.

Unfortunately, that style doesn't mesh with Edward Hogg's rhetorical formality as Isabella, so their scenes misfire. Hogg works more successfully with the likable David Sturzaker (Isabella's condemned brother, Claudio), but he never really makes the gender switch plausible. As a result, Isabella's plight never becomes an emotional component in the drama -- merely a plot point.

Similarly, Peter Shorey turns the comic bawd Mistress Overdone into a drag queen and only Michael Brown as the doubly victimized Mariana brings a credible sense of femininity to a female role.

Dove's direction also fails to find much comedy or evident purpose in the scenes intended to provide comic relief, and their pace and rhythm often prove curiously slack. Happily, John Dougall as the luckless tapster Pompey and Colin Hurley as the gossipy, interfering Lucio bring buoyant energy to their performances along with an ability to bite into their lines with absolute surety.

The 15-member cast and strolling musicians make this "Measure for Measure" an entertaining three-hour diversion, and all the ironies in the text are underlined with ferocious glee. However, there's a darkness at the core of the play that Dove ignores in heightening the misadventures of Rylance's hyperactive Duke.

We don't glimpse a nation sinking into rot, the source of some of the play's most piercing commentaries. "There is scarce truth enough alive to make societies secure," we're told midway through. "This news is old enough, yet it is every day's news."

Shakespeare was speaking about the soul sickness in England after the death of Elizabeth I, but it's still every day's news in contemporary London -- or Washington or Sacramento. Giving us a perky, optimistic quasi-Elizabethan (not Jacobean) staging simply beggars the point.

Things change, not always for the better. And we keep returning to Shakespeare for the most searching perspective the theater can offer on how those changes soothe or shatter the human heart.

*

`Measure for Measure'

Where: Freud Playhouse, UCLA campus, Westwood

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, 2 p.m. only on Nov. 24.

Ends: Nov. 26

Price: $42 and $62

Contact: (310) 825-2101 or www.uclalive.org

Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes

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