Director Robert Falls' arresting, audacious, intensely stimulating, mostly nihilistic and highly amusing production of "Measure for Measure" begins and ends with the poet Donna Summer.
In the prologue, wherein the Duke hands over the keys to the city to the perfidious Angelo, the denizens of what feels like Midtown Manhattan (say, 43rd and Eighth) before Rudy Giuliani sent in the garbage trucks writhe to "Love to Love You, Baby," which is not a bad CliffsNotes title of this play. And in the epilogue, when Falls decides to kill off a major character whom the Bard let live (I mean, why be constrained?), the soundtrack is "Last Dance," that heartbreaking disco ditty that seemed to dangle and then take away one more chance for a slow-dance smooch, and thus to not go home alone.
The peep shows, pimps and grind joints of pre-Disney Times Square are an apt setting for what has always struck me as Shakespeare's most American play. This is a drama that was set originally among Dukes, Deputies, nuns and provosts in Vienna (safely away from the Elizabethan equivalent of Piccadilly Circus) and concerns itself with whether or not a young novice is willing to sacrifice her virginity to save her brother's life. But it actually wallows in a very New World stew of sex, politics, religion and endless rounds of moral fakery. "Measure for Measure" is a play full of characters whose sexual desires peek out from behind positions of public piety with a ferocity that often has exploded in churches, the halls of Congress and the Oval Office, or through immodestly Tweeted self-portraits or invented gubernatorial business trips. And the 1970s, when the music had not yet stopped playing and the sexual/political dances were not yet of death, is as good a moment as any to capture the consequence of the life, lived hypocritical.
Falls' great strength in Shakespeare is in the conceptual encapsulation of individual moments. Many directors are uncomfortable with how Shakespearean characters can turn on a dime, based on the expedient needs of a scene. Such directors try desperately to construct tenuous through-lines for them. Falls just embraces this absurdity, episodically. As was the case with his much-darker "King Lear," this production is bursting with a plethora of interlocking but distinct ideas, all bumping up against the next notion coming down the subway line. The impact of this on the theatergoer, especially one who knows this play, is one of tremendous excitement. Highly conceptual and weirdly self-contained, potent scenes tend to trundle out from the wings to join Walt Spangler's sea of soaring, graffiti-soaked neon. Vistas emerge of sleazy cop shops, full of petitioners, exotically clothed by Ana Kuzmanic; city halls where only the walls have dignity; jails filled with casual degenerates where the guards are no different from the inmates, really.
Into all this comes James Newcomb's Duke — the ruler who sets everything in motion by deciding that his deputy Angelo (Jay Whittaker, a clipped, creepy actor who, amazingly, played this very role in the last major Chicago production of this play) is fit to rule. When Angelo rules with tyranny, the Duke comes back in disguise to watch: Falls sticks the unstinting Newcomb in a collar and gives him an Irish accent, allowing him to wander through the killing fields of Gotham pleasure and sin like a combination of Bing Crosby's Father O'Malley, Spencer Tracy's Father Flanagan and Chicago's Rev. Michael Pfleger. Among many brilliant ideas, this one is perhaps the most potent of all.
In many productions, the Duke has a God-like quality. Not here. In the prologue, we watch the Duke in an act of self-loathing sexual pleasure; he exits, it seems, from sheer moral ennui. That surely explains his eleventh hour affection for poor Isabella (the fiercely determined and de-eroticized Alejandra Escalante, who is obliged here to blink in amazement at what new horrors the world keeps unleashing) and maybe even his poor judgment when it comes to Angelo, whom Whittaker depicts as a deeply twisted sleazebag, rather than the usual selfish, self-regarding climber.
Falls certainly captures the comedy of the piece (thanks, in no small measure, to a deliciously foppish performance from Jeffrey Carlson as Lucio), although he stamps his feet at the strangely semi-tidy ending, preferring not just to undermine any sense of the world righting itself (no world, in this production, could do anything like that), but to stab it in the back. Literally.
That changed ending is, I think, a mistake, not because it changes authorial intent, although that will drive some folks crazy. The play has survived many auteur productions. The problem is more one of aesthetic consistency: It makes a drastic change in a wordless moment, which does not jibe with that which has gone before. Another misstep is a scene wherein Angelo comes with inches of raping Isabella, which has the less than helpful effect of making it seem like if she can survive that onslaught with such apparently little trauma, then the rest of her problem with Kevin Fugaro's pretty Claudio must be no big deal. Otherwise, Falls and Escalante have combined to make Isabella a messily compelling nun, at once perfect and obnoxious. Fair enough. She's a nun at the edge of hell.
There will be some who feel, as with Falls' "King Lear," that this is a production that wants to make the play too stark, that insists on killing the textual tension between benevolence and cruelty, measure for measure, in favor of a world where the latter rules. Darn tootin' it does. The play's moral forces (A.C. Smith's Provost, John Judd's Escalus) are confined to a low rumble.
But proponents of a benevolent or chastened Duke have to deal with his appetites in the last scene, not to mention the plethora of people running around in service of themselves and the beliefs they tote in service thereof. Falls treats the work as a juicy satire, a not-quite-cautionary tale chronicling the last dirty days of disco.
When: Through April 14
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: $25-$86 at 312-443-3800 at goodmantheatre.orgCopyright © 2015, RedEye