For anyone familiar with the work of Robert Falls, his adaption of “Measure for Measure” will not surprise you; in fact, it may seem relatively tame in comparison to his other directing endeavors (think “King Lear” at the Goodman in 2006).
But for those who love Shakespeare’s plays just as Shakespeare wrote them, turn back now. If Falls is known for one thing, it is his ability to force his audience to look at Shakespeare in a new environment. And, while the dialogue is the same, everything — and I do mean everything — is different. “Measure for Measure” is no exception.
The story unfolds after the Duke (James Newcomb), fearful of Vienna’s transformation to a grimy, crime-ridden city, hands over power to Lord Angelo (played by the phenomenal Jay Whittaker) in the hopes of restoring the place to its past greatness. We follow the struggle of Isabella, a nun trying to remain moral in a city that won’t allow her to be. Alejandra Escalante, the actress who plays her, sometimes seemed to struggle over portions of the text, but mostly she did a very good job. Her humorous counterpart, Lucio, is played by Jeffery Carlson, who does an excellent job in acting with a façade of class, while never quite hiding that greasy, out-for-himself attitude, something vital in ensuring that the character is believable.
Rather than Vienna in 1623, we have New York City in the 1970s, an actually very relevant time period to place the action. Within minutes of the production, the audience is blasted with graphic scenes of strippers, people having sex, druggies shooting up and drunks stumbling in the street.
This shocking, scandalous mood is also heightened through the set, one of the most impressive parts of the production.
Designed by Walt Spangler, the multistory structure causes almost overwhelming sensory overload with flashing neon signs for strip clubs, bars and sleazy sex stores that are shadowed by towering skyscraper features and dimly lit, litter-strewn alleyways that extend the stage past its actual boundary. We are made painfully aware that the same fears that Shakespeare had for Vienna centuries ago are still alive and well today.
That is where, I think, Falls is trying to take us. With so much about his version of “Measure for Measure” different from the original, the purpose is clearly to make his audience take this Shakespeare play out of its original context. For the most part, it’s done very well. The modern music, clothes, and set all contribute harmoniously to achieve the desired affect. Throughout the production there are clashes between those who understand that, amidst the tackiness and blatant illegal activity, there is a gray area when it comes to handing out punishments, and those who see the law as being black and white, regardless of circumstance.
This idea of ethics in policy versus a stringent, take no prisoner system is evident in today’s society. We constantly see politicians arguing over the acceptance of the death penalty, a theme that was just as controversial to Shakespeare as it is to us today. This is where the modern adaption finds its high note. These ideas certainly came through in Shakespeare’s era, but they seem much more relatable to a current audience in this format.
Despite these creative successes, however, Falls, perhaps attempting to stay ever on the edge of controversy, decides to radically change the ending. Most people would agree that adapting a classic to modern times can be just as captivating as the original, but there is something that just feels so wrong about killing off one of the major characters in the final seconds, when the Bard himself intended no such thing. Falls seems to have done this simply for the sake of being dramatic, for getting attention, or for showing that he can. In an otherwise successful production, I struggle to think of a good reason for why the ending had to change so profoundly.
Overall, though, for anyone looking for a bright new look on one of Shakespeare’s most intriguing “problem-plays,” the term given to plays that don’t quite fit into comedy or tragedy, then Falls’ adaption will not disappoint. Whether you leave thrilled or horrified, your understanding of “Measure for Measure” will never be the same.