An actor of modest talents can seem amazing with a well-written part. But only a great actor can be spectacular in a sketchy role, and Mark Rylance, in “Measure for Measure,” proves once again that he’s a great actor. His work alone makes “Measure” a must-see, but this is far from a one-man show. In the production — from Shakespeare’s Globe in London that’s in for 21 performances as part of UCLA Live’s Intl. Theater Festival — director John Dove and the troupe bringing a tight clarity to one of Shakespeare’s more confounding plays.
Like the “Twelfth Night” that came to L.A. two years ago, “Measure” is an “original practices” production from the company, meaning an all-male cast in Elizabethan costumes (excellent work by Jennifer Tiramani), with minimal scenery and lighting. The emphasis is on actors and text, with period music and dances thrown in for extra fun.
Announcing that he’s leaving town, the Duke of Vienna gives absolute power to deputy Angelo (Liam Brennan), with hopes that Angelo will get tough on moral laws that have long been dormant. Angelo gets a little too enthused with his new job, ordering the beheading of Claudio for impregnating his fiancee. When Claudio’s sister, the postulant nun Isabella, pleads for her brother’s life, Angelo’s prudish rigidity is shaken and he agrees to spare Claudio — if Isabella will sleep with him.
Anyone lucky enough to have seen Rylance as Olivia in the 2003 “Twelfth Night” may be startled to see that his work here is 180 degrees from “Night.” But the audience is left with the same astonished realization: Before Rylance, who knew that Olivia and the Duke were the juiciest roles in those plays?
Angelo, Isabella and Claudio are usually considered the “money” roles in “Measure.” They have the fiery scenes and soul-searching speeches that are used in most Shakespeare anthologies and that fledgling thesps have performed for eons in acting classes.
But “Measure” is filled with convoluted plotting and murky motivations. For example, is the Duke setting up Angelo for failure? Why does the Duke stick around Vienna, disguised as a friar, spying on everyone?
On paper (and in most performances), the Duke seems like an annoying cipher: He engineers most of the plot twists but stays on the sidelines while the real action takes place.
However, in Rylance’s hands, the character is a comic gem, stumbling, mumbling and offering rambling homilies as he realizes he’s in over his head and gropes to find solutions. He’s like a flustered God who’s set the universe in motion and is surprised by the imperfect results.
This production clearly outlines the Duke’s learning curve: Like the other principal characters, he is flailing at the realization that his firm convictions are based on illusion and that he is filled with the human frailties that he had found unacceptable in others. By connecting the duke to the inner torment of the other characters, the play is thrown back into balance.
Rather than emphasize Angelo’s stern conviction, Brennan plays him as thoughtful and sincere, and his soft Scottish burr helps to offset the character’s rigidity. Similarly, Edward Hogg and David Sturzaker bring a simplicity and conviction to their roles.
Comic characters in Shakespeare are often difficult to pull off, but Colin Hurley and John Dougall do a terrific job.
Rylance recently ended his 10-year tenure as Globe artistic director. One hopes he will continue to perform there and maybe next time bring over his recent “Tempest,” in which the entire play was performed by three actors.
The 11-week “Measure” tour opened Oct. 27 in Minneapolis continues in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and ends Jan. 8 in Brooklyn.