As in Shakespeare's time, this troupe is all male. But whether Shakespeare ever dreamed that acting could be this uniformly superb is only for speculation. Before the play begins the actors are already onstage; we can watch them finish makeup and hair. They chat with the audience. "Everything's hand-stitched," confides the courteous Colin Hurley, not yet in character as the duplicitous Lucio. But Peter Shorey is already in character as Mistress Overdone, inquiring of a dewy young audience member, "Are you a virgin?" "All kinds," whispers Hurley in mock disapproval.
All kinds of characters, all kinds of wiseacre personalities in the cast, indeed, but it's one rock-solid production. The acting is never stentorian, never declamatory. Each character, even the nonprincipals, show full, rich personalities. Voices resonate, even when lowered to reveal secret thoughts. Speech never rushes, nor does it drag. It's conversational, whether comedic or climatic.
The cast is led by Mark Rylance, who plays Duke Vincentio--and of course the duke's alter ego, the friar. Bringing immediacy and coherence to the language, Rylance stutters, stumbles, breathes, pauses. When he lets occasional lines--gasp!--drop off as if no character seems to be listening, it makes us listen more closely. For the line "Sirrah, no more," Rylance exclaims a substituted "Shut up!" Is this sacrilege or stagecraft?
Audience seating is in the house and onstage. There's not a chance those in the house can see the faces of actors turned upstage. Those of us lucky enough to be onstage and within a few feet of the actors can see nothing but honesty: natural, nearly imperceptible reactions designed to impress no one. We see the delicate portrayals of the female characters: David Hartley as Juliet, the ethereal Michael Brown as Mariana, and the astonishing Edward Hogg as Isabella. The actors do not mask the male voice but instead seem to aerate it. We also are privileged to see the nuanced work of Liam Brennan as a Scot-tinged Angelo; David Sturzaker as a genuine, genial Claudio; and Terry McGinity as a no-nonsense Provost.
Dozens of candles in hanging chandeliers help make every scene scintillant. The warmth of original instruments and period dances add to the overall welcoming of the audience. In addition to Rylance, who serves as the company's artistic director, the staff includes a "master" of dance and one of movement; a master of words, one of the play, one of voice. Why? Perhaps it's because those closest to perfection seem always to be the ones continually reaching out for it.
Presented by UCLA Live and 2Luck Concepts at the Freud Playhouse, UCLA campus, Sunset at Hilgard, Westwood. Tue.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. (Also Thu. 2 p.m. Nov. 24.) Nov. 9-26. (310) 825-2101.