The Tempest/Measure for Measure

Though the Castle Amphitheatre’s production of “Measure for Measure” is not entirely traditional, its lucid, dynamic acting and resonant themes make it by far the better of the two Shakespearean offerings this year.

Its counterpart “The Tempest,” meanwhile, is a bit more orthodox — except that it drags, bores and confuses. It seems more under-rehearsed than anything, and much of the attempted comedy reeks of desperation.

Both shows are produced by Actors’ Repertory Theatre Ensemble.

“Measure for Measure,” directed by Loraine Edwards, has nine actors playing twice as many characters, dressed mostly in modern clothing and using minimal sets and props. The production is stripped down to its essentials, highlighting its poignant story of justice and mercy.

Due to its lack of tragic deaths, “Measure for Measure” is termed a comedy, though it’s a rather serious one. This staging of it has comic relief — notably from a frantic Benjamin A. Sansom as the malapropping constable Elbow — but is generally dramatic in tone. The imminent executions and ruminations on death that make up the plot — a man is about to be killed for violating chastity laws — are treated gravely.

But the solemnity of the show does not preclude its being enjoyable, and some enthralling performances give it a powerful energy. David Morgan shows great inner conflict as Angelo, the duke’s oily second-in-command. His scenes with Trish Reading as Isabella, whose virtue he wants in exchange for her brother’s life, are captivating. Ditto Reading’s scene with Benjamin N. Hess as her imprisoned brother Claudio, where Hess with carefully measured nuance weighs the options set before the condemned man. The discomfort of all the choices made by all the characters is palpable.

Jesse Ryan Harward is strong as the Duke (in disguise so he can see what his assistants are up to), and Jeremy Selim has a nice casual charm as the cavalier Lucio.

Nearly everything that is right with “Measure for Measure” is wrong with “The Tempest.” Despite being one of Shakespeare’s less-complicated plays, it is rendered almost incomprehensible in this staging, directed by Kathy Benhardt. It is often overacted, sometimes underacted, and only occasionally well-acted.

Barta Heiner, who played the male lead in “King Lear” earlier this year, does the same trick here, playing shipwrecked Prospero as a woman. The cross-gender casting turns out to be a non-issue: Heiner is good in the role, usually a great deal better than anyone she shares the stage with.

Susan Davis Milne is bewitching as the lithe sprite Ariel. Cameron Hopkin and Logan Black are noteworthy as the villainous duo Antonio and Sebastian because they are perhaps the only pair of characters in the show who seem to connect to each other. Everyone else speaks in monologues, not dialogues, addressing the audience rather than their onstage counterparts. There is rarely any emotional connection between the characters, and thus, no connection with the audience, either.

The allegedly comic twosome of Ed Magic and Joel Petrie as Trinculo and Stephano is particularly egregious to behold. Their slapstick is tedious and forced, their mannerisms exaggerated and hammy. When Caliban (Stephen Drigg) is gambolling through the audience, getting in people’s faces and clowning around, while Trinculo and Stephano hop about madly on the stage, and all of them are hollering over each other, you get the sense that if William Shakespeare is in hell, this is the sort of confused mishandling of his work that he’s being forced to watch.

Should you go? Yes to “Measure” (A-), no to “Tempest” (C-).