Wednesday, March 27, 2013

With Inventively Modern Take on 'Measure for Measure,' Robert Falls Adds Dimension to Shakespeare -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Measure for Measure
by William Shakespeare
directed by Robert Falls
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru April 14

As I explained in reviewing Julius Caesar at Chicago Shakespeare Theater last month, I am an appreciator of William Shakespeare, but far from an expert or even aficionado.

Case in point, until it became part of my Goodman Theatre subscription series, I don't think I even knew that there was a play by The Bard called Measure for Measure.

As such, I certainly had no purist's aversion to director--and Goodman Artistic Director--Robert Falls choosing to set the action and costumes in 1970s Times Square, while retaining Shakespeare's original verbiage (though I'm not sure if verbatim). 

I actually rather enjoyed it, including Falls employing Donna Summer songs--"Love to Love You Baby" and "Last Dance"--to open and close his extremely inventive staging, which also included "Miss You" by the Rolling Stones.

The far more modern setting certainly helped to make clear how a work written in 1603 or 1604 and set in Vienna--which was still referred to in the dialogue--has highly acute resonance and relevance more than four centuries later.

I suspect that Falls' take helped me to appreciate Measure to Measure--which, according to Wikipedia, is considered one of Shakespeare's "problem plays"--more than a traditional rendition done in Baroque costumes.

I can't say that I was 100% captivated from beginning to end--likely due to a bit of difficulty in readily gleaning Shakespeare's poetic language, especially on a first encounter with this work--but I suspect that "on merit," this Measure for Measure may be even better than my appreciation of it. (Although Chris Jones of the Tribune gave it 3-1/2 stars out of 4, roughly equivalent to my 4 out of 5, and if I ever did so, I might have rated it @@@@1/4.)

And if you're confused why a Shakespearen play is being staged in hardscrabble Manhattan during the disco era, when I explain that it has to do with a corrupt judge who capriciously sentences a man to death--for impregnating a woman who he never officially married--but then tries to seduce the man's nun-in-training sister in exchange for sparing his life, it shouldn't be hard to understand how themes of corruption, egregious abuse of power and an attempt to suppress the truth can pertain just as much to the modern age as Shakespeare's time.

Falls' "change of venue" becomes even easier to applaud when one notes that Shakespeare set the play in Vienna, yet gave the characters Italian names--despite himself having never been to Austria or Italy. And it seems to largely be presumed (from what I've read) that with Measure for Measure, Sir William was making comment on the London in which he lived. Thus, the exact setting he employed seems largely immaterial.

The 25-person cast was quite impressive, with among several standouts being James Newcomb (as the Duke, who initially leaves Vienna in the hands of the corrupt judge, Angelo, but later returns in disguise), Jay Whittaker (Angelo), Kevin Fugaro (Claudio, the man sentenced), Alejandra Escalante (Isabella, his sister, the soon-to-be Sister), Jeffery Carlson (Lucio, played here as a Times Square "dandy") and Aaron Todd Douglas (Pompey, a pimp in this production).

With plenty of humor in the script, a whole bunch of outlandishness in Falls' staging, a rather relatable storyline and a lively soundtrack to boot, this may be the most acutely enjoyable interpretation of a Shakespeare play I've yet seen. (Though Chicago Shakepeare's Julius Caesar was also wildly imaginative and largely terrific.)

That said, although it fits well into a contemporary format, I doubt many experts would rank Measure for Measure among Shakespeare's very best plays, despite some twists worthy of a mystery novel (and others a bit more dubious).

And while I fully endorse Falls incorporating whatever adjustments and accoutrements might've been necessary to suit his imaginative staging, I'm not sure I support his decision to end the play by having something happen to one of the characters that was not indicated by William Shakespeare.

Though the great director undoubtedly added appreciable dimension to my enjoyment of Measure for Measure--and Shakespeare in general--I think he might have been better off stopping short of authoring his own ending.

But if you're going to be daring, I guess you might as well do so in large measure.

1 comment:

Rick Ronvik said...

I enjoyed your review of Measure for Measure, and I agree that Falls would have been better off stopping short of authoring his own ending. But as long as he decided to co-author the play with Shakespeare, you would think he wouldn't have ended the thing with such a weak ending. It needed something huge to match Falls' ego.Something perhaps like this:
Since Angelo disliked Mariana and certainly did not want to marry her, he should have whipped out a dagger and stabbed her to death;then fulfilling his wish to die, delivered just a few minutes before, he stabs himself. Lucio, hating the idea of marrying the prostitute and inspired by Angelo's
action snatches up the dagger and stabs the prostitute and then himself. The Duke realizing what a total failure he has been, both in the past and present, grabs the dagger and stabs himself. Isabella,who doesn't love the Duke, but certainly doesn't hate him, rushes to his side and realizing the Duke may have killed himself because she refused him, stabs herself. Barnardine, realizing the Duke is the only person in his life that has done him a kind deed (by pardoning him) is overwhelmed with grief at the Duke's death, and so he stabs himself to death. The lovers, Claudio & Juliet, stand amidst the seven dead bodies on stage with WTF expressions on their faces and - [Blackout]. I think an ending like that would suit Falls better and at least the deaths would have some motivation, unlike his ending.