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Legit Measure for Measure

Also with: Marc Johnson, Johnny Garcia; John MacKay; Charlotte Schully; Ken Cheeseman; Denise Hernandez; Hope Davis; Stuart Rudin; Stephen Turner, and others.

Also with: Marc Johnson, Johnny Garcia; John MacKay; Charlotte Schully; Ken Cheeseman; Denise Hernandez; Hope Davis; Stuart Rudin; Stephen Turner, and others.

A star is born in Michael Rudman’s ragged production of “Measure for Measure, ” the first offering this season of free Shakespeare in Central Park. As Isabella, the virginal novice pleading for her frantic brother’s life, Lisa Gay Hamilton is a revelation. In her first meeting with Angelo (Andre Braugher), her rising passion seems to grow before the audience as she takes on the moralistic martinet who hopes to make an example of the wayward Claudio (Blair Underwood).

Hamilton makes herself into a force of nature, growing palpably from reticence to self-assertion as she realizes her cause is just and reasonable.

Rudman is a Texas-born director who saw greener pastures in London and has made most of his career there. He sets the play in the Caribbean just before World War II, in an enclave whose heightened sexual environment seems ripe for the kind of values overhaulthe Duke (Kevin Kline) envisions when he announces his temporary departure for parts unknown. He has left the town in the hands of the priggish, smug Angelo, whom he hopes will restore some basic decency. The opposite occurs, of course, as Angelo falls hard for Isabella nearly to the point of rape.

Hamilton offers a marvelous mix of familial devotion and overall horror at the debasement of values in her society. Her Isabella is calm reserve wrapped around an iron will. She’s also one of the few actresses on stage capable of holding her own with the formidable Braugher.

“L.A. Law’s” Blair Underwood plays the much berated Claudio poorly, swinging his arms windmill-style and generally looking at-sea. Peter Francis James gives an exceptionally well-delivered Provost, and Karla Burns is charming as Mistress Overdone. The other roles are hit-or-miss.

The production’s biggest disappointment is Kline’s Duke. He delivers the lines gorgeously, but when Kline as the Duke transforms himself into the disguised Friar, the charm dissolves and suddenly Father Guido Sarducci walks among us. It’s a slapstick performance in a play that needs all the sober support it can muster.

John Lee Beatty has designed an all-purpose Caribbean set that is cheery and versatile.

But contemporary audiences will doubtless have trouble finding their ways to such exotic places: What keeps shifting in the play is the moral currency, as each character comes to divine what’s worth living — or dying — for.

It may well be hard for today’s audience to relate to the story of a woman who refuses to give up her chastity to save her brother. Although “Measure for Measure” concludes with three weddings, there’s something unembracing and unyieldingly harsh about it. The ending has the elements of classical comedy — but none of the joy.

Legit Measure for Measure

  • Production: A New York Shakespeare Festival presentation, with the cooperation of the City of New York, of a play in five acts (one intermission) by William Shakespeare. Directed by Michael Rudman.
  • Crew: Sets, John LeeBeatty; costumes, Toni-Leslie James; lighting, Peter Kaczorowski; sound, Tom Morse; choreography, Abdel Salaam; fights, Jamie Cheathem; original music, Andre Tanker; musical direction, arrangements, Steve Sandberg; casting, Jordan Thaler; production stage manager, William Joseph Barnes; associate producers, Rosemarie Tichler & Kevin Kline. Producer, George C. Wolfe; managing director, Jason Steven Cohen. Opened July 18, 1993, at the Delacorte Theater. Free; reviewed July 15; 2,000 seats
  • With: Duke ... Kevin Kline Escalus ... Helmar Augustus Cooper Angelo ... Andre Braugher Lucio ... Ruben Santiago-Hudson Mistress Overdone ... Karla Burns Pompey Bum ... Tom Mardirosian Claudio ... Blair Underwood Provost ... Peter Francis James Isabella ... Lisa Gay Hamilton Elbow ... Ethan Phillips Juliet ... Denise Hernandez Mariana ... Hope Davis Barnardine ...Lanny Flaherty