The Pearl Theater’s spartan style serves it reasonably well in “Measure for Measure,” since the lack of flashy design and specious directorial “concept” keeps the focus on Shakespeare’s text. Though not as passionate as one might hope for a play that hinges on bed tricks and lust, the well-spoken production at least clarifies what’s rotten in Vienna.
Director Beatrice Terry puts thoughtfulness before passion, maintaining a measured pace that carefully maps the plot’s machinations. As a result, the scheming Duke Vincentio (Ron Simons) seems most at home on her stage. Simons plays him as a man at peace with his deceit, a leader who feels justified spying on his people after empowering Angelo (Sean McNall) to enforce the moral laws that the he himself let slide.
Simons’ matter-of-fact assuredness takes on a particular chill when Vincentio punishes Angelo for taking his authority too far. In one of Shakespeare’s most wicked plots, the deputy offers to save the life of young Claudio (Noel Velez), set to be executed for fornication, if the criminal’s sister, soon-to-be-cloistered Isabella (Rachel Botchan), offers her virginal body as payment.
Vincentio delivers a dark comeuppance, and this production makes his plot more disturbing by suggesting it’s the product of logic instead of sheer vindictiveness.
Botchan heightens the stakes with the cast’s most emotional perf. Though she retains the dignity of a woman of God, she also relays the nun’s desperation as every man she knows tries to barter her body for their own purposes. The actress commands empathy by clinging to virtue. And her vivid feelings define the final scene, when the Duke takes Isabella for his bride. Slowly removing her habit and trying to force a coquettish smile, she clarifies what is destroyed when those in power are corrupt.
If only the rest of the cast were as heartfelt. It makes sense for the Duke to be impassive, but the tactic doesn’t serve Angelo, a man undone by desire. McNall’s perf is more smarmy than carnal. Unable to muster passion, he seems too disinterested to pose a threat, and one gets the sense that he could release the nun and her brother out of boredom.
But at least Angelo’s dark side gives McNall a home. Actors in comic roles have nowhere to turn. As lecherous clowns Lucio and Pompey, Dominic Cuskern and Edward Seamon perform in the same studied style as the leads, but that much thinking massacres bawdy humor.
Their leaden scenes drag on forever, as do the misguided appearances from T.J. Edwards, who ignores the play around him and gives each of his roles a cartoonish accent. (It seems inconceivable that Terry could be so deaf to comic tone that she would allow the executioner to sound like Elmer Fudd.)
The lighter bits are so deadly, in fact, that they almost negate what the production achieves. The Pearl may prefer to keep classics in tact, but this “Measure for Measure” would fare better if its awkward funny business were cut.