February 20, 2004





When a Duke plays God


What a piece of work is "Measure for Measure"; how troubled in reason, how infinite in interpretations. With its meta-narrative of moral engineering--a Duke pretends to take a sabbatical, only to stick around incognito and spy on his citizens, even entrap them into painful tests of their character--it remains a case study of Shakespeare as master manipulator. He messes with audience expectations nearly as diabolically, if benevolently, as the Duke himself turns the screws on his unknowing polity.


Erin McBride Africa's so-so new production, set rather half-heartedly in the 1920s, doesn't have a strong take on questions of intention--neither Shakespeare's nor the Duke's (Jeff Doba), nor that of the callow hypocrite Angelo (Edward C. Ellington), in whose rigid stewardship the Duke abruptly leaves Vienna, all the better to give it the social shock treatment he seems to feel it needs.


Surprisingly, the effect of this directorial diffidence is to leave the play's gears exposed in fascinating ways. Some of this is clearly unintentional, as a variably talented cast struggles or plods through many a scene. But there are enough clues here--particularly a briskly ambivalent ending--to show that McBride Africa is attuned to the play's central thematic challenge, which verges on the theological: Who is the Duke, after all, to play God like this?


The '20s backdrop, nicely costumed by Heidi Kushnatsian, neither adds nor detracts much. With a more consistent company the production's thorny points might prick more sharply.

--Rob Kendt


"Measure for Measure," Sons of Beckett Theatre Company at Theatre/Theater, 4th floor, 6425 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Mar. 20. $15. (323) 465-3136. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.