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Two companies that dazzled New York last season with highly praised pairs of plays are back this spring.

The first is Theatre For A New Audience, which last year presented two highly regarded Shakespeare productions (Hamlet and Othello), who is currently mounting Measure For Measure directed by Arin Arbus (who helmed the aforementioned TFANA Othello).

Measure For Measure is not as satisfying a drama as either of those great tragedies; indeed it is usually classified as a “problem play.” Arbus’ problematic production has moments of comedy—best delivered by Jefferson Mays. Mays excels as Vincentio, the oddly aloof Duke of Vienna. He is charming, fey, quirky, and always engaging on stage, providing a bizarre, if ultimately benevolent royal.

The comic relief in Measure usually comes from the prisoner Barnadine, but here this role is oddly unfunny. He’s played here (at the Duke on 42nd Street, through March 14th) as a redneck convict—complete with a mullet—and his appearance doesn’t bring with it the sense of anarchy that it does in stronger productions.

The rest of Arbus’s cast—besides Mays—is likewise underwhelming. Alfredo Narciso is amusing as an oily Lucio, but you can feel the young actor wanting to make more of the part. Likewise, LeRoy McClain, is barely allowed to make an impression as Claudio. Arbus devotes much of the spotlight in this production to Rocco Sisto and Elizabeth Waterston as Angelo and Isabella (respectively) but both these actors only succeed in rendering one-dimensional portraits of these complex characters.

The minimalist production (designed by Peter Ksander) is effective if dry, which pretty much sums up the three-hours spent as this Measure For Measure.

The TempestSam Mendes’ new production of The Tempest is anything but dry; the Harvey stage is half drowned in water in this latest offering of The Bridge Project. Last year, this co-venture between BAM and The Old Vic in London presented a wonderful staging of A Winter’s Tale and a solid revival of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.

Mendes’ Tempest is not as revelatory as last season’s Shakespeare offering, but it is always thought provoking and stylish. Stephen Dillane’s Prospero is easily the best thing about the show. Dillane is a shabby, wizened wizard, who lurks about the stage even when he’s not in scenes. (He almost feels like the director, standing off to the side next to a music stand with what looks like a dog-eared version of the script). His henchman is the spirit Ariel, played at BAM by Christian Camargo, who played the title role in the highly praised TFATA Hamlet mentioned above. Camargo is an intense, smoldering spirit, making the part seem much richer than mere boogeyman.

The Tempest is a play with wonderful scenes and soliloquies (and a good deal of humor) but it’s a work that requires a real directorial point of view to come alive on stage. Two other recent productions by Brits (Rupert Goold’s Titanic-themed RSC version and Mark Rylance’s streamlined, Jung-deconstruction at the Globe) linger in my mind as taking greater liberties, but also giving this late play greater dramatic coherence. Mendes trusts his actors—who are mostly strong, especially Anthony O’Donnell’s music hall Trinculo and Ron Cephas Jones’ Caliban—and gives the play a palpable eerie mood. (It should also be noted that the on stage musicmaking is a nice touch.)

What Mendes doesn’t give this Tempest is a sense of magic. Despite the rich performance of Mr. Dillane, a production with a sorcerer that isn’t magical, is ultimately a Tempest that is somewhat disappointing.

Image: Juliet Rylance and Stephen Dillanein The Tempest. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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