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PHOTO BY LEE A. BUTZ Erin Partin (Isabella), left, and Alexie Gilmore (Marina), right, PHOTO BY LEE A. BUTZ Erin Partin (Isabella), left, and Alexie Gilmore (Marina), right, "Measure for Measure," through Aug. 4, Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival

THEATER REVIEW 'Measure' up at Pa. Shakespeare Fest

Wednesday, July 24, 2013 by PAUL WILLISTEIN pwillistein@tnonline.com in Focus

The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival production of "Measure for Measure," through Aug. 4, Labuda Center for the Performing Arts, DeSales University, Center Valley, is a marvelous feast of double-crossing stratagems, low comedy and high drama.

With Shakespeare, you usually get a drama or comedy. With the Bard's "Measure for Measure," you get both. The play could be regarded as the first of what is now known in TV and movie parlance as a "dramedy," or, more traditionally, a tragicomedy.

One has so many impressions of a Shakespeare production of the caliber and quality of "Measure for Measure" at PSF, it's a challenge to convey how impressive, remarkable and completely satisfying is this production.

First of all, there's the language of Shakespeare. There's a reason why the Bard's plays have survived some four millennia. The first staging of "Measure for Measure" is said to have been in 1604, some 409 years before the PSF production.

"Measure for Measure," because of the sexual nature of its content at the heart of the play's plot which won't be recited here for reasons of spoiling the various twists and because of its complexity has not been without controversy because of its frankness. The play is as juicy as an HBO series.

The play is also as relevant as some of those supermarket tabloid headlines about celebrity scandals and politicians' peccadilloes. One of the play's lines speaks directly to its underlying theme of morality: "Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall."

While the play is quite bawdy the characters are even described as "bawds," no less and the humor is ribald, and, at times, quite dark, "Measure for Measure" is at its foundation a morality play.

The play's title, said as a line of dialogue toward its conclusion, is believed to reference the Bible New Testament, Matthew 7:2: "For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."

All graduate thesis seriousness aside, the PSF "Measure for Measure" is fun and immensely entertaining..

Director Fontaine Syer, with Ian Bedford as assistant director, updates the Vienna setting to 1900, with splendid results, especially in the sumptuous costumes designed by Marla Jurglanis. You really have to see the female's gowns visions of color and elegance. Syer populates the entire stage with the large cast of 18. The pacing is efficient.

Scenic designer Bob Phillips has done something quite brilliant. He's created a huge deus ex machina (literally, Latin: "God from the machine") that sits center stage and is rotated to represent either a cathedral or prison. With stairs, and doors and platforms, the gray, fence and prison-bar like contraption symbolizes the moral dilemmas at the heart of the play and the complexity of choices its characters face.

Lighting designer Thom Weaver bathes the stage in mist so that angular lighting placement creates an ever-presence sense of intrigue and coverup, again echoing the text.

Sound designer Matthew Given chooses dramatic flourishes that have a modern flavor of dissonance, heightening the intensity.

Now to those characters and the actors who portray them.

A dramatic fulcrum is created between the characters of Vincentio (Greg Wood), the Duke of Vienna, and Isabella (Erin Partin), a nun and sister of Claudio.

It is one of the play's chief joys to hear these two fine actors speak the Bard's language, especially in those scenes with each other and in their monologues.

Wood brings a tremendous amount of energy to bear on the role. He's in the play's driver's seat, really, not only as the sprightly Duke, but also in the disguise of the more ruminative priest. Wood takes to the task with brio, and carefully delineates between the two. It is really a pleasure to hear Wood speak the language.

Costume designer Jurglanis creates for the Duke a magnificent cloak of luminous green and for the priest a dirt-brown, ill-fitting cloak.

Partin, outfitted in a nun's habit so white that at certain times in the stage lighting it gives the impression of a glow-in-the-dark angel figurine, gives the impression of great strength and fortitude. She is no mild-mannered cleric. She infuses each word with clear-eyed intensity.

The seven or so secondary leads are equally impressive.

Blake Ellis rises to the task of giving us an impervious Angelo, who allows us to see how his new-found power has gone to his head.

Aaron Kirkpatrick is very funny as Lucio, presenting a foppish, self-righteous busybody.

Suzanne O'Donnell is a comedienne personified as Mistress Overdone, a bawd.

Brad DePlanche is side-splittingly hilarious as Pompey, servant to Overdone.

Zack Robidas is forthright and sympathetic as Claudio, who stands to lose the most his head.

Julia Pfender, as Juliet, gives the appearance of a young woman sweetly flummoxed by her turn of events

Alexie Gilmore as Mariana brings an air of sophistication and severity as a woman who has her own score to settle.

Wayne S. Turney as Escalus is the master of double-takes and aplomb.

Rounding out the cast are Dan Hodge, Jequrey Slaton, Mark Marano, Brendan Moser, Katie Wilson, Henry A. McDaniel, Andrew Goebel and Dan Tomansky.

"Measure for Measures" gives as good as it gets in every department. In mastering the Bard, PSF has created a masterpiece of theater.

And, keep in mind, this is virtually the same cast that is also in "The Importance of Being Earnest," through Aug. 4 at PSF.