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theatre review

Well acted but poorly conceived, Groundling’s production of Measure for Measure’s supposed Jian Ghomeshi trial inspiration fails to land, as the oddness of its characters is unsatisfactorily examined.Jason Cipparrone

If you're a fan of cautious, conservative Shakespeare, then rush to get tickets for Measure for Measure – the second show from the upstart Groundling Theatre Company run by actor Graham Abbey that has enticed big names from the summer festivals such as Brent Carver, Tom McCamus and Lucy Peacock to Toronto.

It's an opportunity for city folk to see these top-notch thespians without driving an hour and a half away – and, just as well, as the uninspired production they're in would not be worth the gas or the traffic. It's all skill, no art.

Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare's most strained plays. It follows the convoluted logic of a comedy, but has a tone too dark and moral quandaries too complex to comfortably fit into that category. After years of lenient rule, The Duchess (Lucy Peacock) – the role has swapped gender here – leaves Vienna in the hands of a law-and-order extremist named Angelo (Tom McCamus) who believes "we must not make a scarecrow of the law." She hopes that he'll crack down on immoral practices that she doesn't want to lose popularity by cleaning up herself.

Angelo gets right to it, sentencing the young Claudio (Charlie Gallant) to death for fornication – which, in this case, means he got his fiancée pregnant. When Claudio's sister, a nun named Isabella (Michelle Giroux), comes to plead his case, however, Angelo is smitten and offers her a deal: If she sleeps with him, he will spare her brother's life. The rest of the play follows the convoluted machinations of the Duchess – who has, in fact, stuck around in disguise – to get to a happy conclusion for all.

Abbey's production is apparently informed by the Jian Ghomeshi trial – and, indeed, its most affecting moments come when Giroux's stunned and tearful Isabella finds herself alone and unable to speak out: "To whom should I complain? Did I tell this, who would believe it?" There is no clear path to justice in this society in this situation – and it is ever thus.

And yet, Measure for Measure is a difficult work to turn into a problem play about consent – because the coercion the Duchess works to combat in disguise, she's content to employ for what she thinks is right. She cruelly toys with Isabella's greatest fears – and throughout forgets she is the root cause of her troubles.

It's the role that needs a strong take. Peacock plays her mainly as a conventional white, middle-aged woman with power of today, her 20th-century training in what a proper Shakespearean performance should be naturally echoing how female politicians of a similar vintage have been expected to sound and act. The weirdness of the character's actions, however, is not examined to a satisfying degree.

Nothing is in a drearily designed production that consists of entrances and exits in costumes that seem yanked out of a trunk.

This Measure for Measure is well-acted on one level – that is to say, well-spoken, with the meaning of Shakespeare's lines and the contours of his plot made clear. But it mostly lacks either liveliness in performance or a connection to real life. (A couple of exceptions: Carver, who could not incarnate a cliché if he tried, as the low-life Lucio, and Mark Crawford, who brings a contemporary sensibility and fresh idea of roguishness to a couple of smaller comic roles.)

Measure for Measure is about a city and urban struggles still recognizable – its secondary characters being pimps and prostitutes and their associates. Walk east for fifteen minutes from the Winter Garden where it is playing and you can observe how these people live and breath today – but here, fine actors like Steven Sutcliffe and Karen Robinson give us a sexless simulacrum, a hollow imitation of theatrical performances of prostitutes past.

Indeed, Abbey's production, on a puny pointless mini-thrust, is as backwards-looking as his director's notes that reference to the lessons he learned from theatrical titans past such as Brian Bedford and Douglas Campbell. He seems stuck in ideas of past glory – and the result feels like recreation rather than creation.

I found Groundling's debut last year with The Winter's Tale of more interest – when they performed in a storefront on the Danforth, almost too close to the patrons. That production is being remounted in repertory with Measure for Measure – also on the stage of the Winter Garden, with most of the audience sitting on the stage on risers, looking out at the fixed seats where audiences usually sit. I did not revisit it. In the case of Measure for Measure, however, I felt this configuration sent the wrong visual message: Excellent actors in front of a vast emptiness.

The Groundling Theatre Company needs to find some sort of real raison d'être if it wants to be seen as a new and exciting company in the city rather than the country mice coming to town.

Measure for Measure and The Winter's Tale continue to Feb. 19 (groundlingtheatre.com).