Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" has usually been thought of as a problem play, in more ways than one.
It deals with serious issues, such as justice, revenge, integrity and personal honor. It also confuses some viewers in its density and its basic premise, that the Duke of Vienna would think of leaving control of the city in the hands of a deputy and wandering about in disguise to feel the pulse of his realm. A glance at the famous Caliph of Baghdad in the "Arabian Nights," who did the same thing, sets a precedent for the Duke's action, and that's reason enough.
The fact is that when the play is approached honestly, without directorial conceit, it's rousing good fun, in spite of heavy moments.
In Friday's performance of the play at Shakespeare Orange County, a visiting class of high school seniors, a section of the public traditionally bored with the Bard, rose to their feet at the end and cheered. They weren't intimidated at all, they knew what Shakespeare was saying, and most important, they got the joke.
"Measure" is a joke, with some rich philosophizing along the way to the Duke's punch line at the end, and under Thomas F. Bradac's incisive direction, it works wonderfully.
The transitions in mood are imperceptible and delicate, the varying weights of each scene are artfully realized, the drama is affecting and the humor contagious. It is the most lucid production of the play seen locally in a long time.
What the Duke sorts out in his disguise as a hooded Friar is his deputy Angelo's unfeeling death sentence of a nobleman named Claudio who has impregnated his betrothed, Angelo's evil insistence on bedding Claudio's novitiate sister Isabella in return for her brother's life, and the wagging tongue of a slimy con man, among other things.
That we should take it all as a seriocomic joke is made clear by Daniel Bryan Cartmell's delicious performance as the Duke, especially when he glances at the audience with a half-suppressed smile from time to time. Cartmell's rich detail and unwavering sincerity, even when sorely pressed, create a Duke worthy of the rank.
There's also a great deal of humor in Carl Reggiardo's Angelo, whose evil can clearly be seen as weakness, and whose desperately injudicious actions are dumb blunders, in spite of his authoritarian pretensions. Katie Johnson's gentle Isabella, who must be prodded to passionate righteousness, is often powerful and always affecting in her sensitive insight.
Much of the humor is provided by Matt Williamson as Lucio, whose misuse of the Duke in both his identities is a brilliant comic touch by the Bard and realized with lightness and flair by Williamson. Marchele Peterec as Angelo's formerly abandoned bride is touching in her solidly constructed portrait of a woman who cannot stop loving a man even though she knows his flaws.
The supporting cast is more than noteworthy, especially Brian Kolb's charming but slightly opaque Claudio, Erin Davis' shrill but effervescent bawd Mistress Overdone, Steven Parker as her hilarious shill Pompey, and especially Christopher Villa's perfect clown of an Elbow, Shakespeare's send-up of every misguided but self-righteous constable entrusted with ridding the city of lechers and such.
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* "Measure for Measure," Waltmar Theatre, Chapman University, Palm and Center streets, Orange. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends Aug. 7. $24. (714) 744-7016. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.
Daniel Bryan Cartmell: Vincentio, Duke of Vienna
Carl Reggiardo: Angelo
Katie Johnson: Isabella
Matt Williamson: Lucio
Brian Kolb: Claudio
Marchele Peterec: Mariana
Erin Davis: Mistress Overdone
Steven Parker: Pompey
Christopher Villa: Elbow
A Shakespeare Orange County production of Shakespeare's romantic comedy. Directed by Thomas F. Bradac. Scenic design: Chris Holmes. Lighting design: David Palmer. Sound design/original music: Chuck Estes. Costume design: Linda Davidson. Stage manager: Simeon Denk.