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This production 'Measures' up

Measure for Measure By William Shakespeare • Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, NYC • Through July 30, 2011 (playing in rotation with "All's Well that Ends Well")

For reasons best known to themselves, the powers behind the Public Theater's Shakespeare in Central Park picked two of the Bard's less familiar works for the summer of 2011, playing in a kind of loosely rotating repertory, using members of a single, shared cast working on a single, unpretentious set.

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The plays, "Measure for Measure" and "All's Well That Ends Well," are both widely considered to be problematic, mainly because neither of them fits easily into any one conventional category. "All's Well," written around 1603, is a dark romantic comedy with a source dating from portions of Boccaccio's Decameron.

"Measure for Measure," written in 1604, is the more familiar of the two works, drawing its sources from a variety of 16th century stories, with recent scholarship having added elements drawn from Shakespeare's own portrait of Duke Vincentio of Vienna and even from the life and writings of King James I himself.

Although the play is sometimes referred to as a comedy, it isn't at all a comfortable fit, with its taste for vengeance and its several threatened killings rendering it a basically unclassifiable item.

"All's Well That Ends Well," directed by Daniel Sullivan, and "Measure for Measure," staged by David Esbjornson, are playing in rough alternation at the Delacorte Theater. This summer's season has been somewhat shortened, ending on July 30, instead of carrying on through Labor Day, as Central Park Shakespeare has done in most years.

The Vienna of "Measure for Measure" is a morally loose, totally corrupt place.Vincentio, the Duke, wishes to see for himself what's really going on, so, adopting a disguise, he pretends to leave the city, having put his deputy, Angelo, in charge. Strict by nature, Angelo clamps down on the sex trade, and goes so far as to resurrect an old law which forbids sex outside of marriage, making it punishable by death.

Among the first individuals caught by the resurrected ban against sex is Claudio, a young nobleman name who has impregnated his fiancée, Juliet. Needing a reprieve, Claudio seeks his sister, Isabella, who is living as a novice in a convent, and asks her to intercede with Angelo.

Isabella pleads with Angelo, who, much to his own surprise, finds himself attracted to her, and proposes an arrangement. If she sleeps with him, he will spare her brother's life. Outraged, Isabella considers exposing Angelo, but she decides it would be pointless. Meanwhile, it is revealed that Vincentio had never actually left Vienna, but instead had remained there, disguised as a Friar visiting from the Vatican, in order to observe his friend Angelo's true behavior.

Director David Esbjornson has done a commendable job with the cast he shares with Daniel Sullivan, and if the latter's "All's Well That Ends Well" has a bit more grace and subtlety than "Measure for Measure" it's because of the text more than anything else. Michael Hayden, one of the best of the current crop of Irish-American leading men in the New York theater, is a standout as Angelo, gracefully navigating the contradictions and ironies in his character.

Equally fine is Lorenzo Pisoni as the Duke of Vienna as he becomes increasingly aware of the hypocrisies which have become commonplace in Vienna under his rule.

Once again, the Public Theater has given the city a great gift with Shakespeare in Central Park, and the city's citizens have responded with long ticket lines and full houses.