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Measure for Measure                  Georgia Shakespeare Festival, 1998

Curt Holman - Creative Loafing

There’s nothing like a good wrestling match, and the bouts in Measure for Measure are anything but faked.  The Shakespeare play pits the individual against society and offers the tag-team match of justice and Christian virtue against law and human passion.  At the Georgia Shakespeare Festival's new production, the main event is the ensemble and director Tim Ocel wrestling with the text itself, notoriously as a wily and unpredictable opponent.

One of Shakespeare's most challenging, elusive plays (Coleridge called it “a hateful work”), Measure for Measure combines low, ribald humor with deadly serious, life-or-death situations.  When PushPush Theater staged the play in the spring, it emphasized the jokiness, offering a light, lewd evening full of dropped pants and other leering laughs. (In one scene a condemned lecher had a scarlet “F” hung around his neck.)

For the GSF show, director Ocel takes the opposite tack, highlighting the play's darker aspects, and it's a very fruitful approach. If overlong, the Georgia Shakespeare Festival's moody Measure still brims with excitement at theater's power to give life to ideas and put symbols into motion.

Eric Sinkkonen's set, B. Modern's costumes and Liz Lee's lighting all contribute to an effective “conceptual” design that evokes European totalitarianism, particularly the Nazi crackdowns of the 1930s.  When the Duke of Vienna (Tim McDonough) frets that he rules with too light a hand, he takes a sabbatical and leaves his by-the-book deputy Angelo (John Ammerman) to rule in his stead.  Stormtroopers in ski masks are soon rounding up the usual suspects.…

The GSF production uses costumes, props and scenery with consistent ingenuity.  Under arrest, Claudio and Juliet are wheeled out handcuffed to a bed.  Bemoaning Vienna's lawlessness, the Duke says, “the rod is more mocked than feared” and punctuates the remark by tossing his umbrella.  Scholarly Angelo pushes a wheelbarrow full of books.  Isabella wears a pale overcoat tied tightly, and when Angelo approaches her, he roughly tries to pull it off her.  And tall, chain-link partitions constantly put the characters in cages and mazes.

Ammerman, Akers and McDonough all expertly demonstrate theirroles' virtues and vices.  McDonough's Duke proves a conflicted, ambiguous figure, so manipulative toward the end of justice that one questions his means.  Aker's Isabella may be pure, but she's also puritanical, valuing her own “honor” above her brother's life.  And Ammerman’s Angelo, a prig turned pig, is tormented by his behavior: If he can't trust his own body, how can he be trusted with the bodypolitic?

Kayser also stands out as a big-mouthed boulevardier who relisheshis own worldly wit, even as his tongue puts him in jeopardy.  Sherrill makes Claudio a likable, ordinary fellow caught in a Kafkaesque situation, while Kristi Wedemeyer adds an interesting dimension to the traditionally male role of the Provost, who here resembles a Gestapo officer with a conscience. …

At the long climactic scene, lit to cast enormous shadows across the stage, the Duke stage-manages the others to reveal the truth, mete out justice and tie everything up in too nice a package.  It's an ending that's dissatisfied audiences for centuries, and Ocel turns that very unease into an advantage.  The characters ultimately react to the Duke and his verdicts not with joyful relief, but palpable uncertainty. Part of the mystery of Measure for Measure is that this ending works, that the play can accept a happy resolution and a more complex, discomfiting one equally well.

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