Thorny Shakespeare Morality Play Comes To Central Park

MEASURE FOR MEASURE. Play by William Shakespeare. Directed by Michael Rudman. At the Dalacorte Theater, Central Park West, through July 25.

THE New York Shakespeare Festival has been in a state of actual or potential crisis for the past couple of years. First came the death of founder Joseph Papp, followed by the troubled tenure of JoAnne Akalaitis as his designated successor, and most recently her departure from the institution under a hail of criticism.

The new production of "Measure for Measure" at the outdoor Delacorte Theater in Central Park is something of a historical event, since it's the first installment in the ongoing Shakespeare Marathon since the arrival of producer George C. Wolfe and managing director Jason Steven Cohen as artistic chiefs. Also involved in the production is actor Kevin Kline, a longtime supporter of the festival and still an active participant in its projects. This is reassuringly signaled by his dual function in "Measure f or Measure," where he serves as star and co-executive producer.

More reassuring yet is the high quality of this production. Although there are few signs of the freewheeling boldness that made Akalaitis an exciting heir to Papp's energetic Shakespearean vision, the show has a solidity and cleverness that make it a worthy entry in the marathon.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge called "Measure for Measure" the most painful of Shakespeare's works, but in modern times its mixture of humor, melodrama, and cynicism has become more popular than it used to be, and the play is produced quite frequently. Michael Rudman, who directed the Delacorte production, doesn't so much blend the comedy's heterogeneous elements as parade them alongside one another, shifting emphasis from one mood to another with postmodern panache.

It's not a particularly elegant approach, but "Measure for Measure" isn't a particularly elegant play. It is a thought-provoking work, however, and Rudman's conception allows its boisterous ideas to careen and collide with commendable gusto.

The performances follow suit, led by Kline as the Duke who attempts to legislate morality in his domain, then observes the results of his experiment by visiting his subjects in a disguise. Andre Braugher has imposing strength as Angelo, the hypocritical deputy who turns the Duke's legal code to his own selfish ends, and Lisa Gay Hamilton is poignantly affecting as Isabella, the young woman whose loyalty to a downtrodden family member leads to sexual blackmail from Angelo.

Other good performances come from Ethan Phillips as the ridiculous Elbow and Ruben Santiago-Hudson as Lucio, a rake who rivals Angelo for duplicity. Lanny Flaherty makes a vivid impression in the small role of Barnardine, a villain so dissolute that even the hangman can't get a grasp on him, and Stuart Rudin is equally good as the frustrated executioner.

By contrast, "L.A. Law" star Blair Underwood received a round of applause when he made his first entrance on the evening when I saw the show, but failed to inject much interest into his portrayal of Lucio, the imprisoned brother who sparks Isabella's problems.

The functional scenery designed by John Lee Beatty lends engaging atmosphere to the production - the setting is a Caribbean island just before the World War II era - without becoming tricky or distracting.

Now in its 22nd installment, the Shakespeare Marathon continues to flourish despite changes in the management and creative direction of the Shakespeare festival as a whole. This is good news, considering that about one-third of the Bard's plays are still awaiting their turn. Next up: "All's Well That Ends Well," with Michael Cumpsty, Herb Foster, Miriam Healy-Louie, and Joan MacIntosh under Richard Jones's direction at the Delacorte in August.

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