Measure for Measure

Villanova Theatre, Vasey Hall, Lancaster and Ithan Aves., Villanova, through Dec. 3, (610) 519-747.

Measure for Measure begins, at Villanova, with a street scene: a shady figure lights a cigarette in a doorway; under the glow of an art-nouveau street lamp, prostitutes and their johns make assignations; pimps, drunks and pickpockets mill about cobblestone streets; street people huddle by barred basement windows. In Wesley Maloney-Truitt's setting, the entire space at Vasey Theatre becomes Vienna of around 1900, a blend of an old imperial culture (the ornate stone buildings, a monumental statue lopped off at the ankles) and aggressive modernism (avant-garde jungendstil friezes, designed and executed by Mimi Kenney Smith).

In moving Shakespeare's troubling comedy, set in Vienna, to Vienna of the fin de siecle (a fairly common directorial choice, that) -- the Vienna of Freud, Klimt, Mahler, Schnitlzer and the Ringstrasse -- director Harriet Power is showing us a city and society in a crisis of modernity not unlike the world represented by the playwright in his 1603 play: a world in which standard systems of morality and ethics can no longer contain the sometimes liberating and often hideous libidinal forces of the psyche, in which the social fabric, never well-woven, is visibly coming apart at the seams.

A few years ago, in a production of Caryl Churchill's Mad Forest for Temple and Venture, Power brilliantly portrayed a dysfunctional central-European culture (Rumania before and after the uprising against Ceausescu) coming apart.

There, her focus was on the lives of that crazy world's inhabitants. But at Villanova, her actors (including many past and present Villanova graduate students, with several years of professional experience between them) fail to show us that life, often because they cannot get past the challenges of Shakespeare's language to the point that they can inhabit their characters and live out their painful moral and ethical crises.

A few performances stand out in unexpected moments: when Escalus the elderly counselor (Harry Philibosian) breaks into tears when he knows he cannot save the life of a young gentleman about to be executed for fornication; and when Ray Saraceni as the Provost repeatedly is forced to adjust his professional duty to his sense of personal responsibility.

The designers (Maloney-Truitt and Smith, along with lighting designer Jerold R. Forsyth and costume designer Janus Stefanowicz) have shown us the picture of a world; but the director and her actors have not yet created the community that inhabits it.

-- Cary M. Mazer