This is a busy theater weekend in Chicago. Playwright David Auburn's "Proof" comes home to Hyde Park after 13 years, and at the Goodman Theatre, William Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" takes a trip, perhaps a strange trip, to 1970s New York, an era before Mayor Rudy Giuliani had cleaned up the porn houses and the peep shows around Times Square.
This will be director Robert Falls' Shakespearean follow-up to "King Lear," a shocking, maximalist 2006 production that imagined the ancient English king as a two-bit dictator — not unlike the notorious Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus — perhaps anticipating Falls' outspoken support for the Belarus Free Theatre.
"King Lear" was a critical success — it moved to the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington and was even mentioned as a possible Broadway entry, although the paymasters of the Great White Way tend to run scared when it comes to massive Falls enterprises, Shakespearean or otherwise.
But it was also a hugely controversial production, sparking walk-outs, angry letters to the editor (and the theater critic).
The production certainly was unlikely to please those who thought it crucial that Lear be a tragic hero whom one could like, or with whom one could at least sympathize.
This greedy guy, not so much.
But no other "Lear" I've seen has better explained one of the play's most thorny questions: How did King Lear end up with two such nasty, cruel daughters as Goneril and Regan? In Falls' hands, they mostly were chips off the old block — chipped before the block fully considered what it would be like to be old and vulnerable.
Over lunch the other day, Falls said "there really are very few Shakespeare plays that I really want to direct, that I think really speak to the modern audience."
That, and the cost of the requisite large cast, might explain in part why the Goodman has produced only three Shakespeares in the past decade. ("Pericles," directed by Mary Zimmerman, was, along with "King Lear," the only other Shakespearean title, although longtime Goodman subscribers may remember an especially lovely Zimmerman production of "All's Well That Ends Well" in fall 1995.)
It's not surprising that Falls picked "Measure for Measure," a piece that deals with personal sexual morality in a decadent landscape and that, as he noted, moves easily to a contemporary setting.
Falls chafed a little when I suggested that one of the trickiest aspects of any contemporary production of "Measure" is making credible Isabella's insistence on keeping her virginity, even at the expense of her brother's life. It can seem, well, an unbending kind of choice.
"She's a very sincere young Catholic woman," Falls said. "I don't think that's hard to believe at all."
Will "Proof" be credible at Court Theatre in Hyde Park?
Well, Auburn graduated from the University of Chicago, met his wife there and, he said in a recent interview, had a very specific street location for the house that dominates the stage.
He also based the character of Robert, a brilliant math genius who fights off mental illness later in life, on various Hyde Park characters he observed in coffee shops and the like.
"You'd see these brilliant dropouts," Auburn said, "all being kind of taken care of by the community."
Interestingly, director Charles Newell's production will have a less hyper-realistic design than the original Broadway production and subsequent national tour.
"The New York production had Hyde Park on the stage," Auburn said. "I think the last thing that Court is interested in is putting its own neighborhood on the stage."
That said, Auburn says he is very interested in this particular production, which is the first he will have seen in some eight years.
He says he's been looking at the script, although he remains wary of what he calls "the special edition phenomenon." "I am just so gratified," he said, understandably enough, "that the play will be done in Hyde Park."
“Measure for Measure”: Through April 14 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.; $25-$86 at 312-443-3800 and goodmantheatre.org
“Proof”: Through April 7 at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.; $45-$65 at 773-753-4472 and courttheatre.orgCopyright © 2015, RedEye