Measure for Measure stays near the surface

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By William Shakespeare. An Honest Fishmongers production presented by Pacific Theatre. At Pacific Theatre on Friday, January 17. Continues until February 8

Director Kevin Bennett only goes knee-deep into the perversity of Measure for Measure. Why not wallow in it?

Set on uncertain moral ground, driven by unlikely conventions, and peopled by walking self-contradictions, Measure for Measure is a difficult play—and surely Shakespeare’s skankiest.

The Duke of Vienna has let things get out of hand: the city has become riddled with prostitutes and pimps. But the Duke doesn’t want to piss people off by being the one to crack the whip, so to speak. So he takes off for a bit and leaves the puritanical Angelo in charge. In the play’s Vienna, it is common for engaged couples to have sex, but Angelo digs up an old law that allows him to arrest Claudio, who has gotten his fiancée pregnant, for the crime of fornication, and sentence him to beheading. When Claudio’s sister Isabella, who is about to become a nun, begs Angelo to spare her brother, the puritan sees a new opportunity: he offers Isabella Claudio’s neck in exchange for her virginity.

Measure for Measure reeks with the eroticism of domination and release. Angelo wants to have sex with Isabella because he would, essentially, be raping a virgin, destroying her while endangering himself.

Even structurally, the play is perverse. The Duke controls the action. Rather than leaving Vienna, he disguises himself as a monk and manipulates everything behind the scenes. But he behaves like a sociopath, threatening people with death as part of his game, even telling Isabella her brother is dead so that she doesn’t wreck the big surprise he has planned.

Rather than leaning into the play’s strangeness, Bennett ignores it, robbing it of its power. Under Bennett’s direction, Ted Cole’s Duke is a bit of a showman, for instance, but director and actor don’t dive into the icy waters of the character’s emotional deficit. And there’s virtually no sexual darkness in this mounting. Simon Webb’s Angelo is convincingly shamed when he’s exposed, but I never felt his appetite for debasement. And Julie McIsaac’s Isabella is simply a good religious girl; I’ve seen her played as Angelo’s nearequal in perversity and it’s more interesting.

Still, Bennett’s staging—as opposed to his interpretation—is often bold. When the Duke fakes his exit from Vienna, he heads out the back door of Pacific Theatre and calls for a taxi. And anybody in the company can turn the lights on or plunge the stage into candlelit darkness by clapping their hands twice; scenes of dissembling and uncertainty play out in gloom.

As effective and even funny as this strategy sometimes is, it has a downside, which particularly disadvantages the excellent McIsaac. Much of the power in her approach derives from the juxtaposition of vocal restraint and the emotion that so clearly pours out of her. But that only works when you can see her face.

That said, under Bennett’s direction all of the acting is admirable. Michael Fera impresses as both the compassionate prison Provost and the ridiculous constable, Elbow. Alison Kelly brings rock-solid authority to Escalus, the court adviser; Jeff Gladstone is moving as Claudio; and Katharine Venour brings touching depth to Mariana, a woman who is haplessly in love with Angelo.

Shizuka Kai delivers a stellar set complete with cardboard-cutout chandeliers, and Christopher David Gauthier’s costumes spin courtliness out of Value Village castoffs.

This company has accomplished a great deal with a tricky play. But Bennett stays on the surface of its skin rather than daring its orifices.

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