'Real Thing' not real; 'Measure' too light; 'Bishop' won't fly; 'Messiah'

A hand too light for weighty material Andrei Belgrader directs ''Measure for Measure'' at the American Repertory Theatre with a deft, light hand.

Perhaps too light.

He creates a mythical kingdom with its own bizarre ceremonies, nonsensical salutes, and wacky walks. Many of the props are child-size and inventively portable. The throne is bright green, water shoots out of the floor, and a yellow ''horse'' waddles on stage.

Belgrader's ingenuity is a lot of fun. The problem is that ''Measure'' is a play about ''mortality and mercy in Vienna,'' and it runs deeper than Belgrader's shallow waters. It concerns a young deputy named Angelo, temporarily in power, who adheres too rigidly to the code of morality he imposes on a licentious kingdom. He condemns to death a youth who has gotten his fiancee pregnant.

Angelo is swayed neither by reasoned pleas for mercy by the youth's sister nor by the discovery that he himself is capable of committing the same ''crime.'' Angelo offers the sister, a novitiate, a trade: her body for her brother's life.

This is weighty stuff. The frolic is fine in the comic scenes. But it goes further than providing a counterpoint to the serious message - it bounces off the walls.

Odd touches creep into the acting as well. Marianne Owen, who plays sister Isabella, blazes with intelligence, and there is great clarity to some of her impassioned appeals. But she runs, flat-footedly, everywhere, and breathlessly rattles off her lines. And she's as sensible as an earnest Girl Scout.

The Duke, played by Robert Stattel, has a wonderfully warm presence and a grand room-filling voice. But he has an abrupt (though funny) tantrum, and leans , very undukelike, on another character. Tony Shalhoub is a young, slight Angelo , initially more milk toast than zealot. But when Isabella refuses his proposition, he erupts into fits of pique that leave him twisted and slobbering. His is not the fall of a man who loves law too unwisely, but the petulance of a thwarted boy.

The tantrums and the toys all say that director Belgrader feels that the audience won't be able to take the issues of chastity, hypocrisy, and forgiveness seriously without being burlesqued. By placing the play out of real time and place, he's saying these concerns aren't quite real either. He stares them in the face - and blinks.

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