Review: ‘Measure for Measure’ and a sense of proportion

 Erin Partin and Blake Ellis in Shakespeare's

Erin Partin and Blake Ellis in Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival through August 4. Photo courtesy of Lee A. Butz.

And now, a special summer nod to Fontaine Syer, the director who has done something wonderful at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival for “Measure for Measure”: She’s actually found not just the pathos but the humor in Shakespeare’s play.

This may not seem like a triumph — the Bard’s play is classified as a comedy, mostly for the Elizabethan notion that a comedy culminates in a number of weddings. (I’m not giving anything away here; that’s de rigueur for any Shakespearean comedy.) But “Measure for Measure” is a cruel comedy with a particularly nasty plot that involves the duke of Vienna (the outstanding Greg Wood) who, for reasons not entirely logical, decides to go away for a spell. Or at least that’s what he tells everyone.

The moral values of Vienna, he says, have disintegrated, and he blames it on his live-and-let-live attitude. The duke tells this to a rigid martinet named Angelo (Blake Ellis, an excellent stuffed shirt), and asks him to watch over things. But the duke is a conniver; he disguises himself as a friar and hangs around Vienna to see what happens when no one thinks he’s there.

His motive? Who really knows — the duke confides to his personal friar (Jequrey Slaton) that he wants to see if “power changes purpose,” which is like asking whether oppressed people bow to a tyrant for fear of death. Well, yes. “Measure for Measure” has motivation problems, but Shakespeare finesses them with a compelling plot.

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An upstanding young gentleman (Zack Robidas) has knocked up his gal (Julia Pfender) and the substitute duke makes an example by sentencing him to death. The condemned gent’s sister (Erin Partin, in a heart-rending performance) is on her way to becoming a nun, but takes time off to plead for her brother’s life. In doing so, she’s swept into a maelstrom of governmental corruption and what we now call sexual abuse.

If I seem a little flip in my storytelling, there’s good reason: “Measure for Measure” is pretty base. It’s about the Peter Principle — the substitute Duke is promoted far beyond his ability to rule. It’s about the quality of mercy, which, in Shakespeare’s ending of the play, seems strained beyond credibility. And in its plot that involves sex at almost every turn, when you stand back from the beautiful soliloquies and clever dialogue, you can see the tale as lurid.

Up close, though, this “Measure for Measure” is striking, from the first silent scene — an invention of the director’s, I presume — where trollops abound, johns run after them, and Vienna appears to be one big red-light district. (The image is in keeping with Shakespeare’s text.) This little touch in itself sets the Shakespeare Festival’s “Measure for Measure” off from all other productions I know, which offered up an austere and even lecturish tale, and certainly without anything like the colorful costumes of Marla Jurglanis or the inventive scaffold setting by Bob Phillips.

Here, we get the best of people in a bad time (Dan Hodge as a jailer, Wayne S. Turney as a respected advisor) and the full and funny sub-plot (Brad DePlanche as a foolish low-life, Aaron Kirkpatrick as a brash self-promoter), and a play with bright flashes of comic relief — even when the discourse is at its most serious level. As they say, it’s all in the delivery and the timing, two elements that help give “Measure for Measure” a heft I never realized it could have. And isn’t that just what you want when you visit — or revisit — a classic?

“Measure for Measure” runs through plays through August 4 at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival on DeSales University Campus, 2755 Station Avenue in Center Valley, a few miles north of Quakertown. It runs in repertory — with almost the same cast, plus others — with “The Importance of Being Earnest,” which also ends August 4. or 610-282-9455.

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