Measure for Measure
Glossy ‘Measure’ a cinematic muddle
|Goodman Theatre presents|
|Measure for Measure|
Review by Lauren Whalen
Despite fearing banishment to the Island of Misfit Critics, I’ll come right out and say it: I didn’t enjoy Measure for Measure. Yes, I love the play, and Shakespeare. Yes, I have tremendous respect for Robert Falls. Yes, I found the production values stellar. But did this 70’s exploitation interpretation work for me? No.
The city is in dire straits: politicians are corrupt and prostitutes are plentiful. At a nearby convent, novice Isabella (Alejandra Escalante) awaits her vows – until her beloved brother Claudio (Kevin Fugaro) is sentenced to death. Slimy deputy Angelo (Jay Whittaker) offers Isabella a chance to save her sibling, but at a very high cost to her virtue. Meanwhile, the Duke (James Newcomb) steps down as ruler of the city and into a disguise, to find personal redemption in destructive meddling.
Measure for Measure is an interesting play: though it highlights the ugliness of humanity, it’s widely considered a comedy. Falls doesn’t shy away from darkness in the play’s first half, injecting a few appropriate lighthearted moments. However, the second half’s descent into slapstick humor is quite unsettling and, as a result, almost feels like a different play. Characters become caricatures, everything’s played for laughs, and a final montage drew cheers from most of the audience, but ire from my viewing companion and me.
It’s as if Falls wanted to make an exploitation film, and with Measure for Measure’s overarching themes, the idea could have worked. Shades of Baz Luhrmann and Quentin Tarantino (the latter draws inspiration from 1970’s films) were present throughout the play. However, what plays beautifully onscreen, doesn’t always translate onstage. (I loved Luhrmann’s postmodern take on Romeo and Juliet but can’t see that working in live theater.) One can only watch so many slow-motion montages. Falls doesn’t seem to trust his audience – constant incidental music tells us how we should think and feel – rather than letting the characters speak for themselves. I felt real emotion in only one scene, when a distraught Isabella brings bad news to Claudio in his prison cell. No montages, no music – just a brother and sister talking. I wanted more of that, and less disco and simulated blow jobs.
The visual elements are stunning: Walt Spangler’s multi-level set recalls the Times Square of 40 years ago. Costume designer Ana Kuzmanic has fun: bright colors and heeled shoes pop off the stage, and even the most minor characters are decked out in exquisite detail. Standout performances include Chicago favorite John Judd, who brings his trademark magnetism to advisor Escalus; Aaron Todd Douglas as blustery pimp Pompey and Jeffrey Carlson as spiffy informant Lucio.
Just a few days ago I reviewed Chicago Shakespeare’s Othello: The Remix, a hip-hop reimagining of the Bard’s terrible tragedy. I asked myself last night: why did Othello delight me, while Measure repelled? Othello: The Remix had clear choices – I could see the reasoning behind everything – while Measure for Measure exaggerates and panders. Of course, enjoyable dark comedy is entirely possible, but not when the director’s interpretation – rather than augmenting Shakespeare’s language and characters – obstructs them.
Measure for Measure continues through April 14th at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map), with performances Wednesdays thru Sundays. Tickets are $25-$86, and are available by phone (312-443-3800) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at GoodmanTheatre.org. (Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Liz Lauren
James Newcomb (Duke), John Judd (Escalus), Jay Whittaker (Angelo), A.C. Smith (Provost), Joe Foust (Cardinal Thomas, Barnardine), Claudio (Kevin Fugaro), Celeste M. Cooper (Juliet), Alejandra Escalante (Isabella), Jeffrey Carlson (Lucio), Cindy Gold (Mistress Overdone), Aaron Todd Douglas (Pompey), Billy Fenderson (Froth), Sean Fortunato (Elbow), Kate LoConti (Mariana), Daniel Smith (Abhorson); John Victor Allen, Amanda Catania, Anthony DiNicola, Amanda Drinkall, Isabel Ellison, LaNisa Frederick, Quinton Guyton, Carolyn Ann Hoerdemann, Travis A. Knight, Glenn Stanton (ensemble)
behind the scenes
Robert Falls (director), Walt Spangler (set), Ana Kuzmanic (costumes), Richard Woodbury (original music, sound design), Adam Belcuore (casting), Neena Arndt (dramaturg), Alden Vasquez (production stage manager), Jamie Wolfe (stage manager), Michello Lopez-Rios (vocal/dialect coach), Joe Foust (fight director, fight captain), Peter Carpenter (prologue choreographer), Kate LoConti (epilogue choreographer, dance captain), Liz Lauren (photos)