July 18, 2008

‘Measure for Measure’ Missing Comic Punch

By Michael Grossberg, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

Jul. 18--No theater company should be expected to solve all -- or even most -- of the tricky issues in one of Shakespeare's most difficult "problem" plays.

Yet, Actors' Theatre does a fair measure of justice to Measure for Measure, which opened last night in Schiller Park.

The dramatic and romantic elements are especially compelling in Artistic Director John S. Kuhn's clever adaptation, which stretches eight actors to tackle all 21 roles.

The comic aspects? Less so.

With its story about a Venetian duke who temporarily transfers his power to another who abuses it on a moral crusade, Measure offers sadly timeless themes of injustice, corruption and hypocrisy. In an election year, what Shakespearean play could be more timely?

Nick Baldasare generates electricity in a brilliant polarity of passionate roles opposite Anna Pannicia's emotionally vivid Isabella. The nun pleads for justice for her brother Claudio with Angelo, the new ruler who revives rarely enforced sex laws to sentence Claudio to death simply for making love with his beloved Juliet before their marriage.

Baldasare would have been memorable enough as either Angelo or Claudio. As both, he's emotional dynamite.

His rich double performance -- a career peak after more than a few triumphs in Schiller Park -- sheds fresh light on the play's central relationships and themes.

Best of all, Kuhn's inventive casting and Baldasare's conflicted intensity underscore the humanity of villain and victim alike.

John Azelvandre, who adds a touch of Prospero to the Duke, and the other actors speak the Bard's tongue with convincing assurance.

Loretta Cannon projects crisp fluidity in Shakespeare's dialogue that helps make her gender-reversed casting plausible as adviser Escalus.

Although early first-act efforts at humor seem overly broad and unpersuasive, Ross Shirley (as the pimp Pompey) and Joe Lusher (a hoot as Lucio) later provide sustained comedy relief.

Although the comedy and drama sometimes are awkwardly balanced -- frankly, I've never seen that done just right -- Kuhn's winning overall approach adds theatricality without sacrificing clarity.

Because of the demands of the quick-changing roles, the costume changes are minimal, but more pastels among all the whites would fit in more with set designer Peter Pauze's colorful pointed banners.

The play doesn't really come into its own as a comedy until the second act. Further, this adaptation doesn't really pay off with a huge laugh until the extended final-judgment scene. Without revealing the coup de theater that occurs when Kuhn runs out of actors for all the roles needed simultaneously onstage, let's just note that his garage-sale-style solution is hilarious.

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Actors' Theatre will present Measure for Measure at 8 tonight through Sunday and 8 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays through Aug. 3 in Schiller Park. Admission is free. For more information, call 614-444-6888 or visit www.theactorstheatre.org


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