Flirting With Justice

Measure for Measure Boston Shakespeare Company Horticultural Hall Thursdays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m.

MEASURE FOR MEASURE is a flirt--it hints at all sorts of fascinating things, but when you try to get it to look you in the eye, it slips off into the night. Sorry, buddy, maybe another time--and you're alone again.

But the play leaves you thinking for the very same reasons it's unsatisfying. Shakespeare was too careful to give a glib anwer to the old knotty problem of who will be the judge's judge--and the knots bulge in the play he built around it, rather slickly labeled a "passionate dark comedy" by the Boston Shakespeare Company for their well-oiled production. Critics have typically been more cautious, calling it a "problem play," but that doesn't answer anything. Say it's a play with comic form but tragic content, if you must.

The BSC has taken this troublesome text and given it a high-spirited once-over. Director Bill Cain, like the Duke in the play, sets up his machinery and watches it work--and he's more successful than the Duke ever can be. But he lets the audience fend for itself in the play's moral wilderness, relying on energy and competence rather than a consistent interpretation to pull them through. To be fair, any attempt at consistency in Measure for Measure would end up forcing parts of the play out of shape; but if directors never even tried, the play might just as well be left to the critics. Few enough productions disturb its rest, as it is.

The neglect of the play is understandable--Shakespeare never painted a more thoroughly ugly, corrupt society than the Vienna of Measure for Measure. The rulers are hypocrites, the police are incompetent, and even the clowns are annoying. The Duke, a Prospero-like character who stage-manages much of the plot, takes a good look around his city and decides it needs a house-cleaning. But he's too good-hearted to enforce the stringent laws himself, so he abdicates in favor of his deputy Angelo, leaving to wander the country as a monk.

ANGELO-learned, philosophical, but repressed-sets out to do the job right and enforce the law with absolute impartiality. Measure for Measure examines how inadequate this machine-like justice is in the face of human ambiguity. Angelo's first victim is to be Claudio, a nobleman arrested for getting his wife-to-be pregnant. When Claudio's almost cloistered sister Isabella pleads for her brother's life before Angelo, she arouses the interest of the judge "who scarce confesses that his blood flows."

Angelo and Isabella alone in the cast delve into their characters, and mine the subtleties of their scenes. Kirsten Giroux's dark-voiced Isabella is the best performance of the evening--she makes this occasionally self-righteous, all-too-correct role warm and sympathetic. James Kitendaugh plays Angelo as a thoughtful, principled man with too many layers of civilization smothering his emotions. As his control begins to go, the fidgeting he uses to signal his tense repression first accelerates and then disappears altogether, as he gives in to his desire.

The scene of their first meeting is grippingly paced, starting and ending slowly to let all the implications sink in. But as the Duke begins pulling strings to end the story before it runs on for ten acts instead of five, the production turns more superficial. Thomas Apple's Duke is nothing to be unhappy about--he's smooth, fatherly and reassuring. But Shakespeare wrote the part as a playwright's nightmare of schemes gone bad, plots out of control. Apple remains blithe, unperturbed, not the sort of Machiavellian man you'd look towards to resolve the mess at the play's end. He comes off more like the big daddy of a commune in Vermont than Duke of Vienna.

SHAKESPEARE'S comedies are never complete without their clowns, and Measure for Measure has its share, but like all the other comic conventions here they're twisted, decadent. No "mechanicals" or "rustics" here--whores, bawds and drunkards fill the streets and prisons. The BSC actors keep these scenes entertaining and colorful, but they never get their fingernails dirty. They're all having too much fun with the lines to look at them carefully and see their pessimism. Will Lebow as Elbow, the Malaprop-like constable--a perfect pantaloon--steals his few scenes.

Only once does the BSC seize the play's dark side and expose it to the audience. As Pompey the whoremaster (Mark Cartier) gives the audience a tour of the riff-raff in the prison, he opens trapdoors in the stage floor which serve as cell doors--and long arms reach out, grabbing for him, trying to drag him down. It's a good bit of stage business, and it's also an eerie picture of the starved world of Measure for Measure, sucking its inhabitants into the abyss.

Most of this production lacks this sense, and contents itself with a faithful but unresonant delivery of the Bard's poetry. In an odd way, this approach actually improves the play's lengthy final scene. With too many loose ends to wrap up neatly, Shakespeare threw up his hands in disgust here and let the Duke run wild, marrying couples and ending subplots in one-line salvos--and he never wrote comedy again. But he left directors with an awesome problem of how to present the scene believably. They have offered it as a parody of incompetent plotting, or a piece of elaborate literary criticism; but Cain gets away with doing it straight because his production never raises three-quarters of the questions dispatched so off-handedly here.

BSC's Measure for Measure is technically smooth and well-directed--see it for its good spirits and evenness. But it lacks that overall sense of control which can guide an audience to new thoughts about old questions. The scenes between Angelo and Isabella hint that the company could pull this off and Measure for Measure will still be waiting when they're ready.