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STAGE REVIEW : ‘MEASURE’ UPDATE FALLS SHORT

Times Staff Writer

Since Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” is a deeply divided comedy of questionable motivations and rancid aftertastes, it must have seemed like a good idea to lace the production that opened Thursday at the Taper with a punk ethic and a few rumbles of rock.

What better way to telegraph a society so mired in moral decomposition as to become the natural target of puritanical piranhas--with all of its contemporary echoes? That must have been what director Robert Egan had in mind when he made this Vienna a fetid place filled with erotic obsession. (The alternate production of the Taper Repertory, Arthur Schnitzler’s “Undiscovered Country,” also is set in a Vienna differently obsessed with sex and death.)

Take this “Measure for Measure’s” startling first image: The Duke (Ken Ruta) kneeling at prayer and overtaken by the ghostly spirit of . . . what? Possibly decadence, possibly death--nothing healthy, anyway--with peripheral intimations of sexual excess. So far so good.

“Measure for Measure,” beginning with its title, is, after all, a mean-spirited play full of sexual threat and sadistic tit-for-tat. Yet the prerequisite with directorial impositions must be an absolute commitment to them--a certain follow-through. It isn’t enough to suggest an idea, but essential to go all the way with it, especially when Shakespeare himself so conspicuously failed to do so.

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Of all his plays, this is one of the least decipherable. It is full of deceivers, yet calls itself a comedy. It even sports a happy ending--sort of. (One has to wonder if these people are capable of happiness.)

Shakespeare never makes it clear why the Duke surrenders his post to the rigid Angelo (played here by a stern yet remarkably flavorless Tom Atkins) and goes snooping around the town disguised as a beggar monk, meddling in everybody’s business and causing, as much as averting, several near disasters. To demonstrate the perversity of human nature?

This justifies Egan for pursuing the image of a mad world gone sour, but he doesn’t go nearly far enough. The concept is sketched in, mostly at the beginnings and ends of acts, yet with the exception of the enlightened character of Lucio (a wittily defiant Kelsey Grammer in red shoes), he drops the metaphor as quickly as he picks it up.

It becomes largely a matter of hair color, cuts and gaudy costuming (by Robert Blackman), punctuated with flourishes of rock music (Daniel Birnbaum) that never feel endemic. In short, the auteurism remains cerebral, adorning the play instead of infiltrating it.

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There are some rewards. Ralph Funicello combines the carved stone angels of an ancient Europe with the shiny glass of a modern high-rise, suggesting the clash of ideologies as well as the melding of old and new in a commendably spare and simple set.

Martin Aronstein reinforces the impression of a dark underbelly to the Viennese veneer with selectively murky lighting. And Blackman’s costumes achieve great humor by careening from punk to tightly buttoned-up propriety. You have to smile at police-state trench coats that look made of green plastic garbage bags.

The acting, in the main, is more appropriate than it is exciting, however, which means that, except for the out-and-out comic roles of Elbow and Pompey (excellently carved up by Don Sparks and Peter Van Norden, respectively), the play’s potential for mystery is only peripherally engaged.

We do catch an intriguing glimpse of repressed lechery in Ruta’s Duke (of the very sort that we miss in Atkins’ Angelo), but he comes across more as a foolishly meddlesome bear than a captivating enigma. Grammer’s Lucio is a morally lucid (and refreshing) escapee from Sam Shepard’s “Tooth of Crime,” but he’s the only one, and Kate Mulgrew’s Isabella, while attractive, is more sensible than she is compelling.

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The collected other characters--Claudio, Julietta, Mariana, even Mistress Overdone--are much less individually defined than is good for them or the play.

The result is a flatness that makes this “Measure for Measure” feel talky and longer than it should. Combined with Egan’s heavy reliance on external and somewhat precious effect, it suggests a plan that misfired. While the idea of balancing the superficially jocular fin de siecle malaise of “Undiscovered Country” with Shakespeare’s still darker comedy of societal misconduct remains a good one, it would have fared much better had it believed more strongly in its convictions.

‘MEASURE FOR MEASURE’

Shakespeare’s dark comedy at the Mark Taper Forum. Director Robert Egan. Set design Ralph Funicello. Costumes Robert Blackman. Lighting Martin Aronstein. Music and sound design Daniel Birnbaum. Production coordinator Frank Bayer. Cast Ken Ruta, Tom Atkins, William Biff McGuire, Wayne Alexander, Kelsey Grammer, Vaughn Armstrong, Carl Weintraub, Joel Colodner, Gary Dontzig, Edwin Owens, Don Sparks, Michael Keenan, Peter Van Norden, Robert Yacko, Albert Owens, Mark Ruch, David Prather, Kate Mulgrew, Marnie Mosiman, Laurie Walters, Sally Kemp, Jeanette Landis, June Claman, Jenna Cole, Suzanne Collins, Belinda Wells. In repertory with “Undiscovered Country” through Aug. 4.

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