Entertainment :: Theatre

Measure for Measure

by Rebecca Sarwate
Contributor
Tuesday Mar 19, 2013
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James Newcomb (Duke) and Alejandra Escalante (Isabella) in Shakespeare’s ’Measure for Measure’
James Newcomb (Duke) and Alejandra Escalante (Isabella) in Shakespeare’s ’Measure for Measure’  (Source:Publicity Office)

The latest revival of William Shakespeare’s "problem play," "Measure for Measure", running at the Goodman Theatre through Sunday, Apr. 14, can only be described as ballsy. The production, helmed by Goodman Artistic Director Robert Falls, takes some big gambles in contemporizing the classic work for a 21st century audience, and the choices almost uniformly produce big dividends.

One element Falls knew better than to tamper with is the Bard’s beautiful and eloquent language. Switching between poetry, slapstick, heartbreaking prose and moral commentary, the emotional dialogue of the dark comedy nearly renders visuals superfluous. Fortunately for theatergoers however, the technical elements of the production are as dazzling as the discourse, resulting in a truly unique Shakespearean experience certain to be appreciated by fans of creativity in general, and lovers of the iconic playwright in particular.

An entry in the journal of Shakespeare’s "problem plays," "Measure for Measure" earns the label for its complicated, nuanced mix of comedy and drama. Early 17th century English audiences were accustomed to consuming their theater portions in black or white: over the top silliness or moral tragedy.

Part of the reason Shakespeare is forever remembered as a revolutionary is his virtuosity in exploring the shades of gray inherent in the human condition. We often laugh as we cry, shed bitter tears as we reflect upon happy events. Robert Falls takes the Bard’s dexterity for navigating emotional climates a step further by introducing seemingly incongruous, yet somehow completely natural ingredients into this satisfying ethical stew.

Press materials distributed before the performance describe the Goodman’s latest work as a "dark comedy against the backdrop of New York City circa 1970s -- an era in which economic challenges, urban flight and the sexual revolution transformed one of the great cities in the world into one of the most troubled."

Situating the action within this framework was the first of many good choices. By contextualizing questions of social decay and political corruption in the Big Apple at a historically troubled period, the audience’s connection is secured. This is not a faraway conundrum of centuries past. It is real, vital and timely. Only consider that the once great Motor City of Detroit is now under the guardianship of a bankruptcy attorney, and "Measure for Measure" is very much the story of now.

The Cliff Notes plot summary is as follows: the administrative head of a morally bereft city, the Duke (a wonderfully colorful James Newcomb), abdicates rule in favor of one presumed to be made of sterner stuff than he. No sooner does Angelo (a diabolical performance from Jay Whittaker) take the reins than he is swept into a moral quagmire of his own. In trying enforce strict laws delinquently executed, Angelo sentences Claudio (Kevin Fugaro) to death for impregnating his betrothed, Juliet (Celeste M. Cooper).

Robert Falls takes the Bard’s dexterity for navigating emotional climates a step further by introducing seemingly incongruous, yet somehow completely natural ingredients into this satisfying ethical stew.

Claudio’s sister Isabella (Alejandra Escalante) intercedes on her brother’s behalf, begging a smitten Angelo for pardon. The ensuing proposition and double cross perpetrated by the Duke, Isabella and Angelo’s jilted lover Mariana (a heartbreaking Kate LoConti) provide the dramatic tension of the work.

So simple, so marvelous. The decision to set the story against the backdrop of The Sexy ’70s allows for a cornucopia of bright lights and sounds, visceral blue film violence and sex and subtle cultural touchstones that unite the experience of audience members. The drama is bookended by hits from the Disco Queen herself, Donna Summer, which is as fun as it is referential.

Kudos to Rich Woodbury, the production’s composer and sound designer. Lighting and costume design from Marcus Doshi and Ana Kuzmanic instill the urge to boogie under the mirror ball even as tense, complex quandaries unfold.

Then there’s Walt Spangler’s set design. Wow. Although the play is staged inside the Goodman’s larger Albert Theatre, Spangler recreates a comprehensive, gritty New York City landscape with settings including, but not limited to: a prison cell block, a finely furnished politician’s office, a police station, a whore house, a convent and streetscapes. I could go on, but you get the idea. Several times throughout the show, I found myself wondering where in the world Spangler came by certain pieces integrated into sets that are as much a part of the production’s success as any other individual element. Brilliant, inspiring work.

The large, diverse ensemble cast of "Measure for Measure" is worthy of individual tribute but in the interest of time I have to single out Newcomb, Whittaker and a sublime Jeffrey Carlson in the Falstaff-esque role of Lucio. All three actors are in possession of impeccable comic timing, while Newcomb and Whittaker are successfully and believably able to segue into soul-searching, authentic monologue.

If there are any weaknesses besetting the production, they are with the play’s female characters. The three principal women, Juliet, Isabella and Mariana, with the exception of the semi-strong willed Isabella, are not good for much else besides victimization, sobbing and pleading, always waiting for some man to make the situation right. We’ll have to do with laying blame for this state of affairs at the feet of a early 17th century script written by an artist from a very different epoch. The talented actresses who inhabit the roles do their best with two-dimensional material.

The Goodman’s early spring production of "Measure for Measure" is literally bursting with life and color. The images and sounds threaten, quite intentionally, to spill offstage, sucking rapt viewers into a spiritual and cultural morass that feels "right this minute." It needs to be experienced.

"Measure for Measure" runs through April 14 at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, IL. For info or tickets, call 312-443-3811 or visit the Goodman Theatre website.

Rebecca Sarwate is the current President of the Illinois Woman’s Press Association, founded in 1885. She’s also a part-time freelance writer, award-winning columnist and blogger who lives in the Rogers Park neighborhood of the city with her cats, Dino and Jordan. Keep up with Rebecca at http://open.salon.com/blog/becky_boop

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