Temple Repertory Theater's production is patchy.
Measure for Measure is a “problem play.” While the term first was used in the 19th century to denote a play that tackles a social problem, today it’s used for three Shakespearean works that don't fall cleanly into the categories of comedy or tragedy. The fact that these three (Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida and All’s Well That Ends Well) are also rife with dramaturgical problems makes the term fitting.
Etymology aside, Temple Repertory Theater’s production does little to address the chief problem of Measure: mending the play’s dysfunctional marriage of comedy and tragedy. Instead, director Douglas Wager amplifies the script’s incongruities, with an effect so odd that at times it feels like it’s been sewed together by Dr. Frankenstein.
Measure follows a Duke (Dan Kern) who pretends to leave his kingdom, turning over the reins of government to his deputy, Angelo (Rob Kahn, terrific in TRT’s Three Sisters but wooden here), a man who has built his reputation on rigid adherence to the law. Angelo promptly launches a moral crusade against what he perceives as the kingdom’s depravity, starting by micromanaging his subjects’ sex lives in a way that’s eerily familiar today.
“The law hath not been dead, though it hath slept,” says Angelo about giving some teeth to the heretofore unenforced prohibiton on premarital sex, punishable by beheading. The first person to run afoul of the new zero-tolerance policy is Claudio (Jordan B. Mottram), who has impregnated his betrothed. Virginal Isabella (Genevieve Perrier) pleads for her brother’s life, but Angelo insists that it’s the law, not him, that wants her brother’s head. However, blazing a trail for Souder, Sanford, Ensign and other family-values politicians caught out in the last few years, Angelo will consider pardoning Claudio for the price of Isabella’s virginity. Tragic!
But for reasons known only to him, Shakespeare decided Measure was a comedy, so after a bunch of ridiculous schemes and mistaken-identity hijinks (surprise!), order is restored and the play concludes with a happy trio of marriages.
Wager chooses to juxtapose the play’s comic and tragic elements instead of trying to unite them, and unfortunately both suffer for it. Comic scenes are broadly played and unfunny; serious moments are so extraordinarily somber that they rob the play of genuine emotion.
Wager gives his Measure a modernist bent, most notably in Millie Hiibel’s costume design, which puts prisoners in orange jumpsuits and the Duke in a natty suit and tie. The comic characters are flamboyantly contemporary, with David Ingram’s Pompey in a sparkling red pinstripe straight out of Guys and Dolls, and Rebecca Rich’s ironically humorous executioner wears a nametag reading “Dr. Abhorson” as she sharpens a goofy giant knife.
Given that, it’s even more bizarre when the noncomic roles are played with considerable gravity. Kern’s Duke (also the narrator) is a benevolent deus ex machina; we never believe his overwhelming compassion is anything more than a way to facilitate the implausible ending. Isabella, likewise, never captures our imagination. In Perrier’s stilted performance, Isabella shows little emotion pleading for her brother’s life, seeming unreasonably more upset when Claudio suggests she maybe sleep with Angelo so that he won’t die.
Only David Mackay’s Lucio manages to bridge the play’s duality. A friend of Claudio’s, Lucio is believably sincere in his desire to help Claudio, and the deftly played scenes in which Lucio slanders the Duke are rare moments of genuine humor.
But while the play’s exploration of moral hypocrisy is timely, the happy-ending solution of replacing one all-powerful authority figure with another all-powerful authority figure (but this one’s better!) seems antiquated and distasteful.
Even though Measure isn’t as entertaining as its companion production Three Sisters, TRT’s debut season can still be counted a success, expanding options in theater-famine July and providing an alternative to the small-cast, one-act dramas that have dominated Philly theater lately.
There’s room for improvement, but, given time, TRT may yet establish itself as the city’s summer spot for classic plays.
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