Measure for Measure is one of those Shakespeare plays that is labeled a ‘problem play’ – there is a problem at its center. Something is wrong with the society of the time, including the head of state; something must be done.
This problematic quality is evident in the production as lust and the law clash. Measure for Measure is appearing at Chicago’s famed Goodman Theatre. The play is directed by Robert Falls, Artistic Director for the Goodman and widely known for his work with Shakespeare’s plays (Hamlet, The Tempest, King Lear and more); his Measure for Measure entertains yet leaves us a little dissatisfied at the end.
The play, written in 1604, was originally set in Vienna; for this production, sleazy Vienna morphs into sleazier 1970s New York. The startling multi-level set designed by Walt Spangler is full of towering grey and black buildings, graffiti, neon signs – Times Square at its most squalid. The curtain opens to the cast in varied stages of undress, writhing in equally varied sexual combinations Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You, Baby.”
No one, including Vienna’s ruling Duke (James Newcomb), seems to be having good time. At center-front, Isabella (Alejandra Escalante), a young novice, is on her knees, praying fervently.
Measure for Measure is a blend of low comedy, incipient tragedy, and moral ambiguity. It asks: what kinds of authority should be given to political leaders? What is ‘just’ punishment? What is the balance between justice and mercy? between duty to God and duty to family?
Apparently unable to address these questions and admitting his own culpability, the Duke leaves the city, no one knows for where (or does he?). He entrusts the responsibility of rule and law enforcement to his most pious aide Lord Angelo (Jay Whittaker). Angelo brings back an old, ignored moral code and levies draconian punishment upon innocent and guilty alike. He focuses on the young novice’s brother (Kevin Fugaro), condemning him to death. Then, showing the failings of so many who come to power, Angelo attempts to exact an unexpected and unholy settlement from the novice in return for her brother’s life.
As the play moves between Lord Angelo’s office and the streets and a prison, Lucio, played broadly as a fop by Jeffrey Carlson, Cindy Gold’s Mistress Overdone, a madam, and Elbow, a clown of a cop played by Sean Fortunato, make the audience laugh out loud at the same time that it wonders how far Angelo will go.
Composer and sound designer Richard Woodbury brings Summer’s music back at the end of Measure for Measure. As "Last Dance" is heard, characters are suddenly and somewhat slickly matched in the marriages that usually mark a Shakespearean comedy – or do they? We leave musing on these problematic couples – and the character that brings them together.
Measure for Measure, adapted and directed by Robert Falls is appearing through April 14, 2013 at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, 70 N Dearborn St, Chicago, IL 60601. For Tickets, call 3120443-3800 or visit GoodmanTheatre.org.
Check on the Goodman website for free pre- and post-show discussions about the play with members of the artistic team.
Photos: Liz Lauren and courtesy of Goodman Theatre