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Shakespeare makes for a complex feast

Three plays at the Globe give us new perspectives on familiar, flawed characters.

July 17, 2007|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Of all the remarkable qualities of Shakespeare's playwriting, the complex, often contradictory nature of his protagonists is the one that keeps us coming back for more. Our ambivalent relationship to these figures ensnares us like a puzzle that seems readily solvable if only we could have another crack at it.

Three plays that offer more than the usual amount of troubling uncertainty make up the 2007 Summer Shakespeare Festival at the Old Globe's Lowell Davies Festival Theatre. "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," "Hamlet" and "Measure for Measure," to cite them in the order in which they were written, leave us with more questions about their central characters than answers. One cannot justify all that Proteus, Hamlet and the Duke of Vienna say and do, yet they fascinate us in disquieting ways. And as these pleasantly uncluttered outdoor productions playing in repertory reveal, the strange behavior on display isn't happening in a vacuum. In each case, a decadent society is, if not egging on the madness, undeniably exerting a warping influence.

The most unexpected delight of the festival was Matt August's effervescent and impressively lucid staging of "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," an early comedy held in low regard by many scholars. Harold Bloom, in his typically robust way, sums the matter up by advising contemporary directors to treat the work as "travesty or parody."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 18, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Shakespeare fest: A caption with Tuesday's review in the Calendar section of the summer Shakespeare festival at San Diego's Old Globe described Hamlet as being cradled by Horatio after Hamlet had drunk poison. In the scene photographed, Hamlet had been fatally wounded by a poison-tipped sword.

Fortunately, August is capable of greater interpretive subtlety than mere sendup. He even figures out how to deal with the play's problematic ending, in which, for the sake of romantic resolution, all is forgiven, including an attempted rape by one of the titular "gentlemen."

A compendium of plot devices and loopy shenanigans that will be refined in the later comedies and romances, the play revolves around a pair of best friends whose bond is severely tested when the aptly named Proteus (Corey Sorenson) decides he likes Silvia (Stephanie Fieger), the sweetheart of his buddy Valentine (Ryan Quinn), more than he does the young woman to whom he has sworn undying affection, Julia (Joy Farmer-Clary).

The play bounces from folksy Verona to the hard-partying court of Milan to the free and easy forest, where the characters are liberated from the shackles of society to recover their better selves. Along the way, Launce (the expert Jonathan McMurtry) and his unruly dog Crab provide much heartfelt clowning to keep us entertained.

August elicits sterling performances from his four young leads. Sorenson's Proteus, more late-term adolescent than fiendish cad, and Farmer-Clary's Julia, a pinball machine of romantic excitement, wear their immaturity on their sleeves. They long for ideals, but both need a healthy injection of reality.

Quinn's Valentine and Fieger's Silvia have more natural gravity, but they will have to earn their happiness every bit as much as their counterparts -- in other words, through trial and error, apology and forgiveness. And with randy, rowdy Proteus around, that entails forgiving the nearly unforgivable.

Labeled a "problem play," "Measure for Measure" is considered Shakespeare's last official comedy, though it's really more of a tragicomedy, with currents as dark and disturbing as any of the romances that flowered near the end of his career.

Angelo (James Knight), the villain of the piece, has been installed as a substitute for Vincentio, Duke of Vienna (an excellent Tom Hammond), who takes a strategic leave of absence so that his fill-in can clean up the licentiousness that has overtaken the city. The laws, hitherto laxly enforced, will be upheld with a vengeance under puritanical Angelo, who sentences Claudio (Rhett Henckel) to death for getting his betrothed pregnant.

It's not too hard to psychoanalyze Angelo, who undergoes a radical turn after his sexual and sadistic appetites are whetted by Claudio's sister, Isabella (Stephanie Fieger), a novice nun who pleads for mercy for her brother. But the Duke confounds quick and easy understanding. Skulking about Vienna in a friar's habit, he serves as a kind playwright within the play, hatching plots and manipulating characters to ensure that a happy ending is arrived at, no matter the occasionally cruel means it takes to get there.

Directed by Paul Mullins in a subdued, deliberative manner, the production highlights the contemplative, world-weary nature of the Duke, who often sounds like a close kin to Hamlet in his death-obsessed musings. Hammond shows us a ruler who has pondered what it means to be a man and has decided that, in the interest of poetic justice, he might as well play God while he has the chance.

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