Drama dept stages captivating 'Measure'

by Will Eckhert | 11/11/93 6:00am

Historically, "Measure for Measure" has fascinated both scholars and audiences alike as one of Shakespeare's most critically challenging works. Happily, the Drama department succeeded admirably in the formidable task of staging the tragicomedy, which opened last night in the Hopkins Center's Center Theater.

In moving the setting from Renaissance-era Vienna to the streets of a modern-day big city, director James Loehlin takes special pains to endow the performance with a splendid visual aesthetic. Set, costumes, sound and lighting are as lavish as one might expect from a higher budget production.

The well-developed set is complimented by accomplished acting. Drama Professor Paul Gaffney brings his experience to bear in the subtle role of the Duke.

Christina Costalas '94 gives a compelling performance as Isabella, the pinnacle of chastity and virtue, while Paul Morf '94 plays the simpleton cop Elbow with equal gusto. Refreshingly, Escalus, played by Bryan Jacobson '93, is not just Shakespeare's straight man, but almost a kind of Pythonesque anti-hero. Joshua Price '93 fares well as the unctuous villain Lucio.

The undisputed star of the show, however, is Angelo. David Harbour '97 shows a tremendous depth of understanding of this "devil...though angel on the outward side," giving voice to a sophisticated reading of the character.

This man is not merely a man aroused by Isabella's austere nun's habit. Obsessed with the concept of justice, Loehlin's Angelo is impassioned by the very mechanisms of sin and punishment. His is not ordinary lust, but an impersonal, institutional attraction; the product of a legalistic fixation.

Even when he straddles Isabella on the floor, it is less in a torrent of passion than with the cold, angry issuance of a challenge to her chastity. Agonizing in a brilliant soliloquy, Harbour painfully displays a noble intellect breaking under an unattainable virtue.

The singular difficulty of the show is that this remarkable extension of Angelo comes at the expense of the character of Isabella, who is somewhat simplified as a religious stoic.

The subtlety of Isabella -- her implicit inner desire, which has long been the critical crux of the play -- is lost when many of her deliciously ambiguous lines are given as only literal reductions. Not only has Loehlin placed Isabella to one side in the crucial formative scenes of the play, but he has trivialized her motivations in a way that not even Costalas' keen acting can save.

However, this is a relatively minor point of criticism. What with all its strengths, a better student production of this play is barely conceivable.

As a performance, the drama department's "Measure for Measure" is pure delight, enriched with an intricate thematic core. It is food for thought and strong drink for the eyes.

Additional performances are November 11, 12, 13, 17, 18, 19 and 20. Tickets are available through the Hopkins Center Box Office.

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