Few things are black and white in the Mary Moody Northen Theatre production of Shakespeare's gloomy comedy Measure for Measure. The play presents murky, gray constructions of justice and mercy, but it's also surprisingly colorful in director Michelle Polgar's hands. An arresting sapphire stage dominates Lisa Laratta's set. Kathryn Eader's magical lighting brings oranges, purples, and greens into the picture. And Buffy Manners' hip costumes outfit the morally ambiguous supporting characters Lucio, Pompey, and Mistress Overdone in pinks, reds, and yellows. Only the play's ostensibly upright figures – nunnery-bound Isabella, sanctimonious Angelo, and that cunning Duke Vincentio – sport a grayscale palette. They stand apart from the tapsters, whores, and braggarts, but, as the play seems to suggest, aren't any better for it.
The other colorless presence is a canopy of delicate white streamers that look like rib cages or party decorations or perforated clouds. Like the characters, they deteriorate as Vienna's moral compass pulls farther southward. A streamer falls as the Duke (Greg Holt) hustles out of town, leaving Angelo (Jeremy Lee Cudd) to enforce harsh laws that the Duke is too yellow-bellied to uphold. Another streamer is cut loose as Isabella (Hannah Marie Fonder) learns that the Duke's deputy, following a theretofore neglected edict, has put her brother Claudio (Matt Buzonas) on death row for impregnating his fiancée. And several more streamers fall as Angelo attempts to convince Isabella to surrender her virginity to him in exchange for her brother's life. By the time the Duke, disguised as a friar, falsely informs Isabella that her brother has been executed, the theatre looks frayed, just as undone as the characters.
Measure is blessed with some stellar performances, especially Fonder's Isabella; she glows with sincerity and is a natural with the play's tough verse. Equity guest Cudd pinpoints Angelo's emotional highs and lows as an unapologetic, self-aware hypocrite, and David Stahl steals the stage as stately Escalus. Other bright spots include Tyler Mount as a whip-smart Pompey, Richard Mitchell Harris as the stabilizing Provost, and Curtis Allmon as the quick, foppish Lucio.
Charismatic Equity guest Holt plays a most unusual Duke: somewhat frenetic and awkward, and frequently beaming uncomfortable smiles. Though he commands the stage, his odd speech pattern is sometimes difficult to understand, even in the intimate MMNT. But I grew to enjoy his characterization by Act 5, when the awkwardness blooms into a delightful take on the Duke's proposal to Isabella. Impressively, that final scene, which is lengthy and notoriously ridiculous, is a highlight of this production. The show gets off to a slow start, but the ensemble picks up speed by the second half to create a colorful version of Shakespeare's grayscale comedy that's worth seeing.
Copyright © 2014 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.