Critiquing a free performance presents quite a dilemma. After all, I paid nothing for a deliciously non-sticky early summer evening spent lolling beneath a lush canopy of green, with the sound of Shakespeare’s dialogue acting almost as ocean surf, gently rocking me to sleep … uh-oh! Therein, my friends, lies my issue with this year’s Kentucky Shakespeare Festival’s Free Will in Central Park performance of “Measure for Measure.” Bluntly stated, it is boring.
“Measure for Measure” is categorized as one of Shakespeare’s comedies, albeit a dark and ultimately uneasy one. The play begins as Duke Vincentio (James Thorp), weary of his city, decides to leave its government under the watch of deputy Angelo (Jonathan Reis). Angelo resolves to revive vigorous laws against those who have sex outside of marriage, and Claudio (Michael Tolfo), a young man whose fiancé is pregnant, is made an example of by being sentenced to death. His sister, Isabella (Elizabeth Helitzer), pleads for his life, but Angelo tells her the only way he’ll spare Claudio’s life is if she, a virgin on the verge of entering a convent, will sleep with him.
The Duke, who has stayed in the city disguised as a friar, convinces Isabella to pretend to accept the deal. Instead, she is secretly replaced by Mariana (Lindsay Christianson), once betrothed to but deserted by Angelo. Angelo then betrays Isabella by attempting to carry out Claudio’s execution, but the Duke reveals himself and issues a string of marriages.
“Measure for Measure” is an overwhelmingly compelling work, a veritable minefield of still-relevant social, mental and emotional issues. It traverses the shadowy moral landscape of human nature, delves deeply into the dark game of psychological manipulation. It explores the effects of power, whether it be newly wielding, not having, bowing to or restraining such. Heady stuff.
And so, it is heartbreaking to watch actors barely skim the surface of this multifaceted play. There seems to be a general lack of character development, which results in superficial performances. Reis as Angelo falls sorely short of the chilling control his character demands. Only when the actor playing this role commands the stage can the audience fully understand the weight of the burden placed on Isabella, and only then does the scene in which Angelo grapples with his desire for her shock the audience with its force.
Helitzer as Isabella also presents a two-dimensional characterization. As one of Shakespeare’s more difficult heroines, the actress playing her has the tricky job of creating sympathy for a woman who very easily can be seen as self-righteous. Helitzer has no problem expressing Isabella’s justifiable anger, but she fails to temper it with the anguish she surely harbors over the choice to sacrifice her brother, thus rendering her shrill.
Even Tolfo, one of last summer’s most impressive Free Will cast members, proffers an almost robotic Claudio. The hugs he shares with his sister are remarkable only in their awkward stiffness.
Paul Owen’s set is starkly minimalist, which in an engaging production would allow the intense emotional endgames to be played out with little interference. Instead, I found myself longing for something of visual interest to hold my attention. Central Park’s serene beauty more than sufficed.