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Revival of ‘Measure for Measure’ in New York’s Central Park

July 2, 1985

NEW YORK (AP) _ The New York Shakespeare Festival’s current production of ″Measure for Measure,″ on view in Central Park through July 21, captures the smiles but not the somberness that make the play one of Shakespeare’s most problematic and difficult comedies.

The result, in spite of the sweetness and sunlight, is a curiously tepid affair that isn’t helped by an uneven cast unsure of which way to go with the play.

Director Joseph Papp also seems undecided. He has transported ″Measure for Measure″ to frivolous pre-World War I Vienna, a time period that works against the dark, almost gloomy nature of much of the play. The action, starkly illuminated by Richard Nelson, is played out in front of Robin Wagner’s airy, white-latticed setting framed by young birch trees and small lily ponds bordered with pink begonias.

And the elaborate costumes, by Lindsay W. Davis, although faithful to the period of 1910, jar with the Elizabethean language. At the beginning of the play, the Duke sports a modified handlebar mustache and wears jodhpurs. Angelo, his surrogate ruler, struts in a formal dinner jacket. The play rests on these two gentlemen, but both John Getz as the Duke and Richard Jordan as Angelo miss the dimensions that would turn their characters into credible human beings.

Getz plays the Duke with an open-mouthed wonderment that isn’t believable for such a high-minded ruler. His decision to return to Vienna in disguise to watch how his righteous deputy Angelo rules in his absence seems more like a college prank than a serious effort to let his moralistic subordinate clean up the morals of a decaying city.

Jordan plays Angelo as a prig and his decision to condemn to death Claudio, a young nobleman, for impregnating the young Juliet, appears petulent, based more on emotion than deeply held principles. When Isabella, Claudio’s sister, comes to plead for her brother’s life, he at first refuses. Only later when he realizes his attraction for her, does he offer her brother’s life in exchange for her virtue.

Fortunately this revival has a spitfire of an Isabella, ready to battle Angelo and even her brother. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio shows both sides of this complex woman who, although she loves her brother, is not above sacrificing him if it will save her honor. Miss Mastrantonio makes Isabella’s dilemma one of the few interesting and dramatic moments in the play.

The comedy scenes also play well, primarily because of Nathan Lane’s broad and very funny performance as Pompey, a bawdy-house procurer. He gets strong comic support from Tom Toner, Robert Stanton and William Duff-Griffin.

But Miss Mastrantonio and this quartet of comedy actors are not enough to save the production. Her passion and their high spirits are only a small portion of the evening which seems interminable when they are not on stage. But then even Shakespeare had trouble with the play, which has more than its share of artifical plot twists that inevitably result in the requisite happy ending.

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