Power Plays

Measure for Measure , Frank Theatre
The Visit, University Theatre

OCCASIONALLY, ONE MUST risk appearing dull-witted in the course of being an honest critic. Which is to confess that Shakespearean comedy has always struck me as both an oxymoron and a chore. If I cared to watch smart, bawdy humor with loaded wordplay, sexual excess, cleverly contrived premises and swift moral resolution, I would choose HBO's Tales From the Crypt hands-down. That said, the Frank Theatre's Measure for Measure is the extraordinary production that transforms turgid wordplay into an involving ethical fable, although its cool acting and unfulfilled visual promise dilute the fun some.

The plot is full of contemporary political echoes. Duke Vincentio, weary of governing debauched Vienna, takes a royal sabbatical, appointing earnest deputy Angelo to restore order in his stead. As young despots often will, Angelo follows the city's bylaws too eagerly, reimposing a long-neglected ordinance making extramarital fornication a capital offense. The first victim of the mattress police is Claudio, whose unwed partner Juliet is conspicuously in the family way. When Claudio's sister Isabella, a nun, appeals for clemency to Angelo, his delusions of power shift from head to groin; he will spare Claudio's life only if Isabella yields to him. Luckily, the Duke, observing all this from afar in one of Shakespeare's typically flimsy disguises, arranges an elaborate campaign of subterfuge (involving, among other things, Angelo's spurned fiancée and a few decapitated corpses) to set all right.

In sitting down to any evening with the Bard, I have come to accept the fact that a good quarter of the material will fly by uncomprehended. Where director Wendy Knox's Measure for Measure excels is in its resolve to render the text as living dialogue. In refreshingly American accents, the actors speak as if they know (and mean) what they're saying, without diluting the content or linguistic playfulness. While the cast is as impressive in overall dramatic arc as it is line-to-line, the blocking is curiously timid; the actors have a bad habit of impersonating the scenery.

Audiences familiar with Knox's iconoclast aesthetic might be surprised at how little mise-en-scène mischief she has included here. The nobility wear neutrally colored suits with Mao collars. To convey the timelessness of distopianism, the rest of the cast resemble greasy post-punk escapees from 1983-era MTV: all spikes, dyes, bangles and vinyl miniskirts. Meanwhile, 58 empty terra-cotta flower pots (unofficial count) are the only novelty to the spartan set (their function, physical or figurative, is a baffler). The overall design strategy is similarly enigmatic; it's not misguided as much as lacking in resonance or spectacle. For these and other reasons, Frank Theatre's intelligent but restrained production is as easy to respect as it is difficult to love.

Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Visit, like much German Expressionism, makes a more transparent political metaphor out of another Crypt-worthy plot. Opening at a run-down railway station in Guellen, a bleak armpit of a city, the shabby, jobless locals await the arrival of a prodigal daughter, Claire Zachanassian (Barbara Reid). Anton Shill (Charles Nolte), mayor-designate, shopkeeper, and Claire's former sweetie, is assigned the task of winning some charity for his depressed town. But when Claire arrives--with her seventh husband, burly goons, prosthetic limbs, a casket, and a pair of blind castratos--these modest plans are hastily scrapped. Instead, Claire offers the town a billion marks in exchange for the righting of a single wrong. Anton, who like many of us was something less than a gentleman in breaking off his youthful tryst, must be executed for Guellen to collect its windfall. "This is Europe-- you forget that we are not savages," the Mayor (television newscaster Dave Moore) replies, and the matter seems settled. That is, until the locals begin splurging on imported cigarettes and buying on credit, without any visible means to meet their mounting debt. As Claire waits for the now opulently dressed citizenry to relent to her irresistible bargain, and Anton's own family joins the spending spree, the ex-boyfriend begins to honestly repent his past while becoming properly scared.

Like the bizarre conceptions of Heiner Müeller or Günter Grass, Dürrenmatt's The Visit excoriates Germany's moral failure without reverting to didacticism. The University Theatre and director Stephen Kanee's handsome staging and projection design scenery (including 20-foot slides of factories, forests and faces) could probably push further toward the evocative and the unconscious without risking inaccessibility. But Kanee succeeds remarkably in straddling the ideological parable--the town's gradual arrival at false piety and fascism--and the more human (almost, yes, tender) story of the relationship between Anton and Claire, which emerges against all odds as a uniquely German love story. CP

Eye of the Storm's The Big Slam plays at the Loring Playhouse through November 18 (332-1619).

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