“Measure for Measure” is considered to be one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” meaning that it is one of the Bard’s works that is not easily categorized as simply a comedy, tragedy or history.
But audiences attending the Trinity Shakespeare Festival’s outstanding production of this play are not likely to have any trouble knowing what they have seen. They will leave the theater feeling they have enjoyed a comedy that mixes in its darkly dramatic elements with a deftly light touch.
This production, which opened the ninth year of this festival at TCU’s Buschman Theatre on Thursday, brings back a familiar cast of players. If you have attended this summer series in recent years, you have seen nearly all of them before. In some cases that would look like stagnation. But, in this case, it is difficult to argue with the festival’s choices. These actors are not being recast out of laziness. They are back again because they just keep getting better at this.
The complicated and densely populated plot of “Measure for Measure” involves a Viennese nobleman, Duke Vincentio (Richard Haratine), who is concerned about the general direction of his administration. In order to check the pulses of his constituents, he announces that he is leaving town for a while and places a hard-nosed judge, Angelo (Montgomery Sutton) in charge. But the Duke is not really departing. He hangs around in the guise of a friar to see how things go with Angelo at the helm.
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True to form, Angelo’s first official acts are shutting down the brothels in the city’s suburbs (while allowing those in the city to continue operation) and imposing a death sentence on a random citizen, Claudio (Branden Loera), for impregnating his girlfriend. Old Vienna was, apparently, a tough town.
Then, just in case we didn’t already know that Angelo was a total snake, the dictator pro tem offers an out for Claudio: he tells the accused’s sister, Isabella (Kelsey Milbourn), that he will drop the charges if she has sex with him.
The rest of the play is devoted to the convoluted efforts to save Claudio, reveal Angelo for what he really is, and keep Isabella chaste.
The acting in this production, under the breezy and uncluttered direction of TCU drama professor T.J. Walsh, is superb. Haratine has played characters like the Duke several times before in this festival’s productions, and he has the whole regal-bearing thing down pat. Milbourn, who is also handling the choreography for the festival’s pair of plays, is a radiant presence as Claudio’s tormented sister. She is the Maypole around which everyone else dances.
The comedy in this production is carried primarily by two characters: Pompey (David Coffee), a laborer whose many jobs include being a bartender at a bawdy house, and Lucio (Garret Storms), a goofy and loquacious friend of Claudio.
Although Coffee breaks no new ground with his Pompey (Shakespeare’s clowns can be a bit interchangeable), he does his usual excellent job of naturalizing his Elizabethan lines and making the most of every comic opportunity.
Storms’ performance is much more problematic. From a technical standpoint, it is completely wrong. He gives Lucio a 21st century manner and delivery while everyone around him is slogging their way through the early 17th century. So it is almost maddening to see how well he makes his approach work. He very nearly steals the show. Seeing the audience howl at his every word and move is a bit like watching doting parents patting a 5-year-old on the head after he burns down the house because, aww, he was just so darn cute lighting those matches. But as someone once said, all’s well that ends well.
Will Turbyne’s scenic design is quite simple — just a few bits of furniture moved in and out to suggest changes of location. But behind the often bare stage is an enormous gothic window, through which we see a series of well-chosen projections. Michael Skinner’s highly effective lighting plan further enhances the overall look of the production.
But the most impressive visual element is Lloyd Cracknell’s period costuming. In shows like this, the costumes sometime seem to be wearing the players. But in this production, Cracknell’s choices in style and color make it seem as though these people were born in those clothes.
So while Walsh earns the lion’s share of the credit for the overall quality of this presentation, it is obviously a team effort. You have seldom seen a team better suited-up and ready to play than this one.
‘Measure for Measure’
Through July 2
Trinity Shakespeare Festival
Buschman Theatre and Hays Theatre