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Measure for Measure                  Georgia Shakespeare Festival, 1998

Dan Hulbert - Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Measure for Measure is among the most mysterious of Shakespeare’s creations, the one for which his intentions are hardest to fathom.

It has the dreamlike air of a folk tale but penetratingly explores issues that buzz in our psyches, blare in our headlines.  When a roguish pimp, hauled in for violating an anti-fornication law, says, “The [brothels] are being plucked down in the suburbs!” (yes,

Shakespeare said “suburbs”), it's as though the bard somehow glimpsed the legal war between Cobb County and its strip clubs.  When characters cry out for “justice!”—brilliantly debating an ideal that has consumed philosophers since Socrates—one thinks of the TV trials that have turned questions of  “justice” into bloody national wounds.

In Tim Ocel’s terrific production for the Georgia Shakespeare Festival, even with the crystal clarity of the whole ensemble's acting, the play's essential mystery remains.  This Measure is a dark, uncompromising vision, but as entertaining as any frothy farce in the sense that we care deeply about the characters and for three hours are galvanized by their journey.

The scene is Vienna of the late ‘40s with echoes of the Third Reich (think of how well the settingserved Ian McKellan in his staging and movie of Richard III).  Designers Eric Sinkkonen (set), LizLee (lighting) and B. Modern (costumes) use bold, economic strokes, beginning with a gracefully carved 19th-century edifice that turns out to be merely a facade.  This world’s true character is in the planes of steel fence that constantly shift to represent the jail cells of the fornicators and the emotional mazes that trap everyone else.

Vienna is a sensual hotbed as Duke Vincentio (Tim McDonough) leaves it under the leadership of Angelo (John Ammerman), a deputy so self-righteous that (in the words of Jonathan Davis’ funny pimp), “when he makes water, his urine is congealed ice.”  Angelo enforces an anti-adultery law so ruthlessly that Claudio (Brad Sherrill) is arrested and sentenced to death for sleeping with his betrothed, and Ocel's stunning image is to show the lovers handcuffed to their bed as Gestapo like agents roll them to the dungeon.

Isabella (Jan Akers), preparing to enter a convent, learns of Claudio’s plight from his friend Lucio, played by Chris Kayser, the drolly-perfect image of a roué with his dangling cigarette and patented leer. She goes to Angelo to plead for her brother’s life.

There are hardly two actors in America who could improve on how Akers and Ammerman play the following famous scene.  Angelo—not a brute but the prototype of the 20th-century despot who pursues ideals by brutal means—refuses to show mercy.  But neither will Isabella give up.  Listening to Akers attempt this eloquent rescue, in her soulfully husky voice, is as thrilling as it would be to watch her on a storm-swept cliff pulling her brother back to safety on a rope.

Angelo names his price for Claudio's life: her body.  In the tortuous soul-searching—

Isabella's and Angelo’s—that follows, Shakespeare's wisdom on sex, power and hypocrisy could fit right in with the latest news dispatches from Washington.

And yet, when the duke slips back into the city in a friar's guise and helps Isabella with a scheme that could save her brother and her virtue, it seems Shakespeare reverses his ambiguous, modernist course, falling back on old devices of romantic comedy.  Or is he mocking those devices?  Yet more mysteries.

We leave the theater haunted with a sense of the unknowableness of the bard—and of the human heart, one of the greatest mysteries of all.

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