Crowd Pleaser

— Looking for an undemanding summer bagatelle? Go see the Old Globe's Measure for Measure. It's a real crowd-pleaser. Of course, if you want an earnest exploration of one of Shakespeare's most intricate works -- designed, writes John Wilders, "to show the impossibility of writing comedy" -- look elsewhere.

The play takes place in Vienna. Director Paul Mullins has reset it in the early 20th Century: the Vienna of Sigmund Freud and a perfect locale to probe Measure's psychological labyrinths. But instead of diving in, Mullins has glossed over every subtext and staged the Bard's "problem play" just for yuks.

In Shakespeare's version, at least, the main characters are in between identities. Isabella is almost a nun. She's becoming a Sister of St. Claire (and wishes its rules were "more strict"). Her brother Claudio is almost married to Juliet, but they have already consummated -- "dessert before saying grace," wrote scholar Gary Taylor -- and she's pregnant. To make law enforcement more strict, the Duke of Vienna's stepping down. People think his proxy, Angelo, merits his angelic name, he most of all. But the Duke wonders if, when Angelo rules Vienna, power will corrupt him. To find out, the Duke disguises himself as a Franciscan friar.

So a nun returns to the world; a Duke poses as a priest; and a self-proclaimed saint, convinced he bleeds ice water, is now "the demigod, Authority." Out of their element, they aren't so much star-crossed as cross-eyed. Each sees (and hears) double. Pregnant with power, Angelo really enforces "a long-neglected law" against fornication and orders Claudio executed (when finally nabbed, Angelo says he's "unpregnant"). Isabella pleads for her brother. Her innocent words excite Angelo, and his heretofore repressed passion "breeds" with them.

Shakespeare complicates matters by having no one agree on a character's character: Escalus says the Duke's a well-meaning, know-thyself contemplative; Lucio, that he's a "superficial, ignorant, unweighing fellow." And the Duke we see? An inept, sadistic Prospero, and almost infinitely strange.

Measure for Measure is Shakespeare's Rashomon. But instead of hearing conflicting reports, we watch them unfold, each character twisting like a Rubik's cube, at times reflecting an adjacent color, at others, clashing. At stake: justice versus mercy, and life versus death. And no measures are equal: no eye for an eye; more, an eye for a stubbed toe.

When actors perform Measure with passion, relishing the myriad contradictions, the play prompts laughter and bottomless mystery, often in the same instant. Paul Mullins, however, has staged a detour from complexity. He's tweaked every comic moment and inverted the major and minor characters. The subordinates cavort like leads, especially Lucas Hall's honeycomb-clad Lucio, who flits and spurts about the stage as if on leave from Cirque du Soleil. At one point Hall bounds up Ralph Funicello's steep, stained-wood stairs in three hops -- most impressive (even the Russian judge would give it a ten). But instead of letting Lucio's be one perspective among many, Mullins allows Lucio's shallow "foppery" over "morality" voice to dominate.

Robert Morgan's costumes stress this imbalance. As if their dilemmas were crystal clear, the leads wear black and white -- gloomy charcoal, crusty Franciscan gray. The townsfolk and comic characters dude up for the boulevard in Technicolor: spats, checkered slacks, and straw and felt hats for the men, baroque patterns on the women's dresses.

The comedy frames -- and in the end mocks -- the somber leads. They drone on about human frailty and "lawful mercy" and feel like a nuisance the director couldn't sweep under the carpet. James Knight's Angelo's a stiff corporate guy with no interior life, even when feelings for Isabella balloon. Stephanie Fieger's Isabella has touching moments but, as directed, verges on cold sanctimoniousness. I'll bet Tom Hammond could catacomb the Duke with subtexts. Instead he's asked to make him a superficial, meddlesome voyeur, which Hammond does, well. But at no point does he become the "Duke of dark corners" we hear so much about.

All production elements serve the director's comedic conception. The ensemble work, in particular, has no weak links (Jonathan McMurtry adding another gem to his collection as Barnardine, the drunken felon who refuses to be hung). The pacing is brisk, the blockings fluid. The show, in short, is of a piece. It just isn't Measure for Measure.

They should dip the whole thing in a vat of Iago juice.

Measure for Measure, by William Shakespeare

Old Globe Theatre, Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, Balboa Park

Directed by Paul Mullins; cast: Sam Breslin Wright, Celeste Ciulla, Eric Hoffmann, Carolyn Ratteray, Bruce Turk, Charles Janasz, Jonathan McMurtry, Tom Hammond, Michael Kirby, Stephanie Fieger, Kate Turnbull, Rhett Henckel, Lucas Hall, James Knight, Nathaniel McIntyre; scenic design, Ralph Funicello; costumes, Robert Morgan; lighting, York Kennedy; sound design and original music, Christopher R. Walker

Playing through September 30. Note: Measure for Measure runs in repertory with Hamlet and The Two Gentlemen of Verona; for days and times call 619-234-5623.

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