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Doling It Out

Measure for Measure Directed by Doug Mao At Adams House November 7, 8 and 9

By Richard J. Howells

IT IS A BRAVE director who attempts Shakespeare. It is positively fraught with difficulties.

Obviously, the language and stylistic complexities are challenges in themselves, guaranteed to expose all but the strongest of actors. But the obstacles go deeper than that.

The main obstacle is one of familiarity. Everyone seeing Julius Caesar knows what will happen on the Ides of March. Audiences viewing Macbeth rest assured that Burnham Wood will come to Dunsinane. And that the last act of Hamlet will be invevitably strewn with corpses.

In other words, the director can never rely on his audience being kept on the edge of their seats simply by unravelling the plot. Pretty much, everyone knows what is going to happen no matter how good the story is. Attention focuses not on what is happening but more on how well it is happening, thereby placing both director and cast under extraordinary scrutiny.

More than that, the director is practically expected to justify his choice of such a well-known play by coming up with a production of extraordinary classical quality or, as an alternative, creating a production of such innovation that the audience finds itself looking at a familiar piece in an entirely new light.

It was a bold move, therefore, of Adams House to select Measure for Measure as their offering for this semester. It is certainly a very entertaining piece, with enough sex and violence to fill a dozen TV movies and offend another dozen parent groups. But, for all that, it is still Shakespeare.

The majority of people, then, wending their way to the Adams dining hall are paying not to see whether or not the iniquitous Angelo really will get his come-uppance, but rather to see what director Doug Mao and his team have done with the text.

Not surprisingly, to those who have followed the production's pre-publicity, the accent in this tragi-comedy is very much upon the comedy, and this has proved to be both the strength and the weakness of the show. Foresaking the classical approach, Mao has tackled Measure for Measure with an impish, irreverent and almost knock-about zeal which certainly provides the hallmark of the production. The problem is knowing when the comedy stops.

The success of Measure for Measure, it might be argued, lies in the tension between the comedy and the tragedy. Upset the balance and that vital tension can be lost. In the Adams production, the comedy gets so free a reign that the conterpoint suffers and the audience, rather than finding themselves intrigued by the comic possibilities of the script, find themselves more confused about when they should and should not laugh.

Perhaps the answer might have been for Mao to have thrown convention completely to the wind and to have played the whole thing for outrageous laughs. This would have been both innovative and also set a more stable tone for the production.

Interestingly, the strongest--and certainly the most disciplined and technically well-honed--performances here are also the straightest. Remo Airaldi's Angelo is menacingly evil without giving way to histrionics, while Liza Diprima impresses as Isabella--a difficult role as the character is so painfully good while all around her are being so deliciously bad.

The prize for 'best stage presence' goes to David Angel's Lucio, arguably the best part in the play. Angelo plays with more camp than a world jamboree and his "Hail, Virgin" greeting of Isabella proves the comic highlight of the evening.

While the Adams House "Measure for Measure" shows great potential and certainly has its moments, it does seem that on this occasion, the snares of Shaksepeare have still proved too treacherous for the inevitably limited resources of house drama.

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