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Measure for Measure goes over the top with Shakespeare's grim comedy

Of all Shakespeare's comedies, the rarely produced Measure for Measure is the most elusive. It seems to dangle before directors and critics like a glittering bauble, begging interpretation while resisting conclusive analysis. It promises all sorts of glory while remaining just out of reach, luring the hapless professional to come close and go ahead with a bold conceit, only to disappear as a dramatic entity when he or she takes the bait. The play's latest casualty is the current production at the 450 Geary Studio by the Contemporary Shakespeare Company, directed by Steven Cosson (who also directed Stupid Kids and In the Dark by John C. Russell for Smart Mouth).

Measure for Measure is a rather grim comedy about rules, tests, and values. It involves a permissive duke who leaves his out-of-control city in the hands of a hard-line surrogate and returns in disguise to watch what happens. The duke's stand-in is Angelo, a humorless fellow who sets out to enforce laws that have been flouted for years. His first victim is Claudio, an otherwise harmless young man who has committed the sin of fornication and impregnated his girlfriend, Julietta. Claudio is sentenced to death. As a last resort, he sends for his virtuous sister, Isabella, who is about to enter a convent. She appeals to Angelo, who promises to spare Claudio if Isabella will give him her virginity. The duke, disguised as a friar, arranges to trick Angelo by substituting Angelo's former fiancee, Mariana. In the end everyone gets his or her due, and the play ends in the usual flurry of celebratory marriages.

So what could go wrong in that rather typical-sounding plot? The question is like the old joke about where a bear sleeps. (Anywhere he likes.)

Where are the traps? Everywhere you look. The playwright's targets are also everywhere. No character except Angelo is particularly villainous, and none except Isabella is particularly virtuous, and everyone has a weakness to be lampooned. The pacing of the play is fast, with sudden twists of plot.

In this production, Vienna has been relocated to the United States of "a while ago," which could cover anywhere from the 1920s (Keystone Cops) to the mid-'60s (go-go dancers) to a few days ago. The setting (designed by Stacey Mann) appears to be the backyard area of a working-class urban neighborhood: Clotheslines dotted with lingerie and money are strung overhead as constant reminders of just how corrupt this society is. As though we needed reminders. "Welcome to violence," says the voice-over (sound is by John Ribovich), as finger-snapping street toughs, waltzing nuns, and go-go dancers cavort about the stage. Various themes from long-gone television programs (Peter Gunn, for one) provide the music, and the stage is a riot of bawdiness.

Enter the duke, wildly overacted throughout by Patrick Flick. He's a plump cartoon of a playboy prince with his white yachting outfit (costumes are by Creta Pullen) and effeminate gestures. He announces to Escalus (Paul Gerrior) -- described in my text as "an ancient lord" and represented here as a police sergeant -- his intention to leave Angelo (Eric Carrillo) in charge of the city. He confers the authority of his office and takes off. Escalus -- in a remarkably thoughtful and well-grounded performance by Gerrior -- registers dismay, but holds his tongue in deference to his ruler. He seems relieved when Angelo (given a compelling and intelligent reading by Carrillo) invites him to confer.

The opening scene appears innocuous and straightforward enough: The duke deputizes Angelo quickly, with little exposition of any kind, and then he's gone. Director Cosson's setup is loud and gaudy; he wants to impress us with a range of corruptions. But he seems to realize that sex, strippers, and dancing nuns are all cliches. So he has cranked up the performances to the level of distraction. It's hard to take in what the actors are saying, never mind fathom what is actually going on.

The duke arrives at a monastery where he confides his plan to a cartoonish friar (David Bischa). I have to admit I'm not entirely sure of what happened in Cosson's version, but I think somewhere under all the slapstick and mugging, an essential speech of the duke's (in which he admits he's been the play's equivalent of soft on crime) may have been cut. He then demands a monk's habit so that he can go back to the city and see how Angelo deals with his new power. To his dismay he finds that Angelo has decided to make an example of Claudio (Paul Vincent Black) and has scheduled his execution.

What makes Measure for Measure such an interesting play is that all the characters, no matter how noble to begin with, are quickly unmasked as susceptible to human frailty. The duke, in admitting his inability to govern, starts the ball rolling. Claudio and his very pregnant girlfriend, Julietta (Cat Callejas), are quick to admit their transgression, but see no harm. (Of course, neither do we.) Claudio's pal Lucio (played energetically with uneven results by George Castillo) is a con man who will say anything to advance his position, but he is a loyal friend.

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