There's an aroma of triumph in the air following the final bows for Peter Hall's production of "Measure for Measure." With a contingent of local talent, English helmer Hall has mounted a production that may not offer groundbreaking vision or avant-garde electricity, but which makes up for that in good, old-fashioned elegance, accessibility and common sense. If that sounds like faint praise, it's not.

There’s an aroma of triumph in the air following the final bows for Peter Hall’s production of “Measure for Measure.” With a contingent of local talent, English helmer Hall has mounted a production that may not offer groundbreaking vision or avant-garde electricity, but which makes up for that in good, old-fashioned elegance, accessibility and common sense. If that sounds like faint praise, it’s not./b>

Infrequently staged, “Measure” reps one of Shakespeare’s richest efforts. At the play’s heart, questions of personal ethics and state power contrast with a keen sympathy for human frailty; the result is a work fraught with nuance and full of ideas. Hall hews close to Shakespeare’s basic outline, though the setting (originally, Vienna) has been recast to what seems like America, circa 1820.

Hall opens the play portentously, as designer John Gunter transforms the Ahmanson stage into an oblong box with a freely adapted model of the Capitol occupying the background. If that weren’t enough to convince auds that the production will address issues of governmental abuse, they’ll realize it the minute they perceive that the Duke’s desk is in effect a miniature Greek revival federal building, complete with Corinthian columns. Gunter’s costumes complete the effect, with several minor actors sporting garb that Henry Clay or Daniel Webster might have worn.

The Duke (Brian Murray) stands at the center of things. An all-powerful figure whose good deeds are at least somewhat undercut by his strange motivations — a subject which Hall, unfortunately, never really plumbs — the Duke sets in motion a series of events that he must then undo. The plot, naturally, has its share of machinations, but its main point is that rigid Angelo (Richard Thomas), a government official, is shown to be a hypocrite. Justice, Shakespeare tells us once again, must be tempered with mercy.

Hall’s production conveys this convoluted tale with economy and clarity, two virtues not to be lightly dismissed in an era when familiarity with the Bard cannot be assumed. Lines are spoken not only understandably but with secondary (generally salacious) meanings often underscored.

The acting is always able, occasionally even subtle. Hall has assembled a solid company, with no really weak links, though those hoping to see the Royal Shakespeare Company transplanted to the West Coast are in for a disappointment.

Chief among this production’s attractions is Murray’s Duke. An accomplished thesp of wide-ranging experience, Murray brings gravity and sympathy to a role that might well have vexed others. Perhaps even more remarkably, David Dukes takes the comparatively minor role of Lucio and transforms it into a star turn, playing a rogue as a dandy and stealing the show in the process.

Anna Gunn’s Isabella, the chaste figure around whom much of the plot turns, is appropriately demure, but the actress fails to convey the sexual spark that sets off Angelo’s crisis of conscience. As her brother, Claudio, Hamish Linklater does better, playing a likable yet self-involved swain.

Comic relief comes in the form of bawds (Patti Allison, George Dzundza), a cuckolded constable (Ted Rooney), a sanguine executioner (Stoney Westmoreland) and a drunken prisoner (Peter Francis James), but only Dzundza’s fully realized turn as the pimp Pompey wrests our attention from the more sober action.

The production is marred, however, by Thomas’ perf as Angelo. A complex figure who is at once principled and unethical, this conflicted bureaucrat requires an edge; instead of playing Angelo as a tortured soul, the actor portrays him as a callow fellow, unprepared for the responsibility of high office.

Though he chooses not to delve too deeply into the text’s myriad subtleties, Hall offers an atmospheric production and directs the proceedings sharply, leaving little room for confusion or even ambiguity.

Measure for Measure

Ahmanson Theater; 1,600 seats; $52.50 top

Production

A Center Theater Group/Ahmanson Theater production of the play in two acts by William Shakespeare. Directed by Peter Hall.

Creative

Sets & costumes, John Gunter; lighting, Richard Pilbrow; sound, Jon Gottlieb, Philip G. Allen. Opened and reviewed June 20, 1999. Closes July 27. Running time: 3 HOURS.

Cast

Duke - Brian Murray Escalus - William H. Bassett Angelo - Richard Thomas Lucio - David Dukes Mistress Overdone - Patti Allison Pompey - George Dzundza Claudio - Hamish Linklater Julietta - Jennifer Dundas Lowe Provost - Charles Janasz Friar Peter - Mark Deakins Isabella - Anna Gunn Elbow - Ted Rooney Froth - David Manis Mariana - Cindy Katz Abhorson - Stoney Westmoreland Barnadine - Peter Francis James
With: Jennifer Leigh Warren, Kathryn Meisle, Michael McCarty, Ian Lithgow, John Towey, J. Todd Adams, Julia Coffey, Joshua Fardon, Benjamin Livingston, Donald Sage Mackay, Gloria Mann, Maura Vincent.
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