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Too Measured

Measure for Measure Directed by Andrei Belgraden At the ART through January 22

MEASURE FOR MEASURE was Shakespeare's last real comedy, and in it, Shakespeare is often seen to have lost his earlier belief in harmonious endings. The marriages which so neatly conclude Measure seem offered with relief that the play is over, rather than with any conviction that they could actually occur. The ART's production approaches Measure by emphasizing the play's artificiality, but the world which it tries to create is artificial; it fails to take on a life of its own, leaving the audience in limbo between artifice and reality.

'Measure is the story of Angelo, the Duke of Vienna's deputy, who is given the task of enforcing the city's disregarded laws while the Duke is away traveling. In the course of purging the city of its sins, Angelo condemns to death a young gentleman, Claudio, for getting his finance, Juliet, with child. Claudio's sister, Isabella, pleads in vain for her brother's life. Angelo in return displays a lack of pity which proves all the more hidcous when his own unbridled lust is uncovered. In the end, Christian mercy and the "natural order" of life prevail over the "artificial" systems of government or morals.

The technical aspects of the show work to suggest this artificial world. At one point a xylophone is used to simulate time by ticking like a clock; at another, a miniature bridge symbolizes the route over which the Duke returns. Douglas Stein's fine sets are composed of a very few, very impressive pieces rising out of the otherwise bare stage. Each piece--throne, castle, tree and brothel--is meant to stand for a separate sub-world. Each individual costume is also fully realized--the perpetual prisoner appears very realistic, while the nuns wear stylized haloes--but with both costumes and set pieces, the whole lacks any recognizable greater design. Many of the more striking effects--fireworks in the last scene, the introduction of an enormous horse male out of two people, or the use of actor Ben Halley's falsetto--seem included merely because someone realized they were possible. The one exception is the music, written and directed for the show by William Uttley, which seemed to have been given considerable thought.

All this studied contrivance might have been effective if it had been played against less artificial performances by the actors. To underscore the artificiality of reality there must be at least a little reality against which to test the theory. And while minimal and fantastic props can be effective, minimal and fantastic characters are not at least in Shakespeare.

In the absence of a clear interpretation of the text by the director, most actors suffer from a lack of confidence. Most lines are delivered too quickly. Uncertain about their characters, or about their characters' relationships with other characters, many actors fling their lines away rather than directing them at the audience or another character. Robert Stattel as the Duke is the worst offender in this regard, often literally spitting out his lines; since the Duke has several long and emotional scenes, the results range from something resembling a temper tantrum to outright melodrama. A similar lack of control hampers the performances of Marianna Owen as Isabella and John Bellucci as Claudio.

ONLY TWO actors seem confident enough in their roles to move unself-consciously. Thomas Derrah as Lucio, Claudio's friend, offers the only consistently sympathetic character. Lucio is the literal devil's advocate, the very personification of human frailty. Derrah makes Lucio every bit as enjoyable as he should be, without sacrificing believability. Richard Spore also does an extremely fine job as an absolute caricature, the simpleton constable Elbow.

The ART production is full of independently satisfying results its music, visual effects, and acting. Of the minor characters, Ben Halley Jr. as the Provost, Jeremy Geidt as Escalus, and John Bottoms as Pompey turn in strong performances. But as a whole Andrei Belgrader's direction lacks a sufficiently strong vision of the play as a whole to dominate the individual elements and fuse them into a coherent interpretation, something intellectual satisfying rather than merely titillating.