Photo by Craig SchwartzHERE'S AN IDEA: AMERICAN ACTORS ARE GENERALLY credited for their passion, so why not choose a company of America's finest and put them in the hands of a language-oriented Brit — say, two-time Tony Award recipient Sir Peter Hall, founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, helmsman for many years at the Royal National Theatre and distinguished by a career of making the Bard's lines clear and accessible. Words meet passion; text meets subtext: That's the general principle behind the experiment on view in Measure for Measure and A Midsummer Night's Dream, two comedies in repertory at the Ahmanson Theater.
The endeavor should dazzle; it doesn't — though Measure for Measure is most absorbing. Still, it would be a shame if Sir Peter didn't return to try something like this again. The experiment is on a road to somewhere, even if the destination is a bit hard to discern.
What Hall does well, he does very, very well. First, he knows and loves every breath — and breath held — of Shakespeare's wit and musicality, which languorously unfold as in some stately serenade (though some of my colleagues complained about acoustical problems in the theater). Then there's the unsolved clash of Measure for Measure's comic and tragic tones, which Hall artfully negotiates. The play is still a mess, but less of one, in Hall's care, than you're likely to find anywhere.
The action begins with the Duke (Brian Murray) announcing his intended departure to his magistrates and turning over the keys of his kingdom to his deputy, Angelo (Richard Thomas). Every last wry drop of meaning is squeezed out of Murray's basso profundo. Much of that meaning lies in the Duke's secret plan to stay around — in disguise — to keep tabs on his strict deputy. This is, of course, a classic comedic setup.
Some of the comedy pushes into slapstick, as with the blabbermouth Lucio (a gloriously funny turn by David Dukes) and the city bawds, cast for their physical alignments of fat and thin, tall and squat, and bedecked in the colors of some tropical spring. Angelo puts a swift end to their commerce, closing whorehouses across the region and — in the same puritanical sweep — arresting and sentencing to death a fellow named Claudio (Hamish Linklater) merely for the crime of having premarital sex. Claudio's beheading, to be carried out the next morning, is so swift and severe a sentence, it contains its own grim humor — particularly when Thomas' smiling, honey-toned Angelo almost croons to Claudio's sister, Isabella (Anna Gunn), “Be you content, fair maid. It is the law, not I, condemn your brother.” (Sound familiar?) Add to that one pimp named Pompey (George Dzundza), in prison, called into service as the executioner's assistant, and a whimsical plot turn involving decapitated heads, and you have the farcical strands lacing the action.
And of course there's hypocrisy in the middle of it all. When next Angelo meets Gunn's statuesque, earnest Isabella — a woman who has just entered a convent — he makes her a sordid offer: If she will serve as his prostitute, Claudio will live. (No witnesses. She'll be discredited if she complains. The usual.) Were she a slag, Angelo ruminates to himself, he'd have no interest in her. He, the morality police, finds himself smitten by her virtue. Now that's perverse.
Isabella explains all this in jail to Claudio, who, understandably apprehensive about having his head removed in the morning, pleads with her to sleep with the guy. But she swiftly shames him. To save his own life at the cost of his sister's honor? Rather, she bids that he die quickly. Clearly, when it comes to the strained quality of mercy, Angelo has met his match in Isabella. This is among Shakespeare's many jokes about the artifice of virtue, and its sundry contortions. The Duke “returns” to rectify the many injustices, and everything wraps up as though in a comedy far more flip than the ideas Measure for Measure introduces. For the play contains some somber moral equations — underscored by a few eerie chords in Jon Gottlieb and Philip G. Allen's spartan sound design — from which there is no such easy escape.
It would be next to impossible to stage this play in the summer of 1999 — after our nation has just impeached its president for fibbing about moral indiscretions — without the audience drawing an instant and obvious connection to Monicagate, a connection Hall nonetheless feels obliged to enlarge.
Parked upstage at the start is what looks like a toy model of the White House. In a forced perspective that funnels toward the back of the stage, the ever-narrowing gaps between the wooden floor planks close in on the building, like the creases of a fan. The stage's austere inquisitorial ambiance is that of some House or Senate sub-committee. In a later scene, a vertical red-and-white bolt of Old Glory cascades from one corner, so that, with Richard Pilbrow's lights and the marble-tinged frame of a looming grid, John Gunter's entire set is rendered in none-too-subtle Americana hues of red, white and blue. Though Hall's production ostensibly remains set in 17th-century Vienna, we're clearly meant to see the parallels between Claudio and Bill Clinton, and between his mercilessly self-righteous accuser, Angelo, and Kenneth Starr. The effect, though, is just strained topicality — equating Shakespeare with yesterday's news.
BUT THAT'S JUST A QUIBBLE COMPARED TO THE PROBLEMS in Midsummer, a generic staging with doggedly traditional ambitions — pagan English faeries spraying sparkle-dust and prancing in a forest (with portable cascading fauna), lit in silvery, smoky hues by Pilbrow, and juxtaposed against an Athenian court, costumed by Gunter in Elizabethan garb. The star-crossed lovers are fine, sort of amusing and even slightly impish. So what? Hall's stately pacing, which so well serves Measure for Measure, here bogs down, probably because there's little that's conceptually fresh. The play is beautifully designed and spoken for the most part, though Kelly McGillis' Fairy Queen Titania has some ä kind of speech impediment that renders her incomprehensible. Perhaps to compensate, Titania's hubbie, King Oberon (Peter Francis James), is clear to the exclusion of all else.
The goofy mechanicals are dutifully diverting, but the main problem is emblemized in Thomas' manic-spirit Puck — and the frenzy he exudes, which should appear effortless. Just to watch him, though, is exhausting, a temptation to, as they say, close your eyes and think of England.
HALL STANDS AMONG A QUARTET of iconic stage directors all named Peter — Brook, Stein and Sellars. Though their methodologies have shifted and evolved, it's fair to generalize that they each work from a different starting point: Brook, from legend; Stein, from stylization; and Sellars, from any number of cryptic conceptual whims. Of the four, Hall alone proceeds from the lines in the play. In so doing, he places himself in what could be dubbed “The Olde English Skoole,” which is rather like a train of thought that's huffed and puffed its way to the Ahmanson all the way from Restoration London. Hall's dedication to the lines, to their cadence and clarity, to their melody and tone, borders on the spiritual.
That poetry courses and workshops in our colleges and universities have, of late, been filled to capacity (a recent phenomenon) is a strong argument in favor of Hall's approach — perhaps the only argument. Alas, it stands dwarfed by a mountain of evidence that we belong to a society that increasingly speaks through pictures rather than words.
This is what Hall is up against when he advocates the primacy of the lines. Which may partly explain why his productions look just a bit staid. Not for lack of lucid interpretation and passionate performances, but from a nagging sense that the visual elements, however carefully wrought, are more or less tagging along behind the words. As compensation, Hall serves, and serves up, Shakespeare's prose and poetry with unconditional care and skill. And that's nothing common.
MEASURE FOR MEASURE and A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM | By WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE | Directed by PETER HALL | At the AHMANSON THEATER, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through August 1