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Tarting Up Shakespeare Mars a Timely Comedy

By DAVID SUNDELSON Special to the Planet
Friday August 15, 2003

“Measure for Measure” has more than enough for a contemporary American audience: a corrupt official who tries to extort sexual favors, misguided attempts to legislate morality, squeamishness about the death penalty. 

There is obvious psychological interest in the puritanical deputy suddenly overwhelmed by lust and in a central figure, the Duke, who fears his own authority and prefers to rule by hidden manipulation. There are haunting meditations about death (“O but to die and go / We know not where”) that rival anything in Hamlet.  

None of this is enough for Daniel Fish, the director of the new production at Cal Shakespeare. He feels obliged to throw in interludes of pop music (at one point the whole cast sings along with Johnny Cash), clownishly contemporary costumes (Claudio, the young man condemned to death for fornication, is dressed for some reason for work at a fast-food stand), and a half-naked teenager who wanders through the production but doesn’t exist in Shakespeare’s text. (She gets one of the Duke’s most important lines, seriously undermining the complexity of the final scene). 

Fish’s sight gags pander to the audience. Some are simply irrelevant (a character chops up a watermelon to keep us from nodding off during one not-so-compelling passage). Others, like the executioner who wears a rubber George W. Bush mask, hammer us with over-explicit connections to today’s issues and push a delicately-balanced play into farce. 

Why, oh why, do directors feel compelled to tart up Shakespeare? Do they think we just can’t tolerate the unfamiliarity of the language or the strangeness of the plot in works? Do they think us too dull to appreciate the Bard’s richness and subtlety? Do they feel the need to compete with television? 

I didn’t hate my evening. The play, one of Shakespeare’s most ambiguous and disturbing, survives even Mr. Fish’s innovations. There was one compelling performance: As Lucio, Andy Murray has the energy and bite missing from Bruce McKenzie’s Angelo and Michael Emerson’s Duke. Carrie Preston also had a few strong moments as Isabella, the young woman who won’t sacrifice her virginity to save her brother’s life.  

The final unmasking scene was dramatic and effective, and there were the reliable pleasures of the lovely outdoor setting and the informal atmosphere (sip your wine as you watch the show). Still, this production makes one long for actors who can do justice to Shakespeare’s language and characters and, even more, for a director wise enough not to compete with him. Surely Cal Shakespeare can do better for us.