In the Goodman Theatre’s Measure for Measure, the audience is not left bored. Robert Falls’ adaptation of Shakespeare’s “dramedy” about a pious sister trying to save the life of her not-so-pious brother strokes all of the senses. In the beginning of the play, the Duke (a somewhat corrupt politician) announces to all that he is leaving and placing Angelo (a stricter leader) in charge. When Angelo (portrayed by Jay Whittaker) discovers that Claudio and Juliet are having a baby out of wedlock, he sentences Claudio (Kevin Fugaro) to death. In an attempt to save Claudio’s life, his soon-to-be nun sister Isabella (Alejandra Escalante) talks to Angelo. Angelo propositions her: to save her brother’s life, she must give her virginity to Angelo. After Isabella tells Claudio and refuses to save his life, the Duke returns, only this time disguised as a friar. Through his trickery and deception, the Duke uncovers in his community a slew of moral ambiguity and falsehoods.
Originally set in Vienna during the 1600s, Falls sticks Shakespeare’s words in the middle of Times Square during the 1970s. Walt Spangler’s set was nothing short of amazing. Even as I sat down before the play started, the piles of trash and neon sign piled on top of neon sign plopped me right inside of 1970s New York. The play opens on a wordless stage, with somewhere around twenty or so actors, each portraying various—each sexual or dark in nature—scenes happening in the city. The music is loud, loud enough to feel it in your ribcage, all thanks to choices made by sound designer Richard Woodbury. In this production, it was the job of the set, sound, and costume designers to stick Shakespeare’s characters in the 70s, and they did a fantastic job. The vibrancy of Ana Kuzmanic’s costuming (especially character Lucio’s fabulous light blue suit) made the play so visually engaging, even while I was struggling to keep up with the dialogue.
While undeniably entertaining, Falls’ take on Measure for Measure is not particularly new for a work by Shakespeare. Take Baz Luhrmann’s film version of Romeo + Juliet with Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio. The idea of placing Shakespeare’s work into a more modern setting is no longer as bold and exciting as it was in 1996 (the year the movie came out). Plus, the film had the added benefit of Leo DiCaprio, and well, that’s a little unfair no matter what you’re talking about. Perhaps the show was not the most innovative in its thinking, however what it lacked in originality it made up for in characters.
The major tensions; characters facing an ethical dilemma, condemned love, and unfortunate timing, are in accordance with the rest of Shakespeare’s work. The difference? Falls’ takes on a much darker version of Measure for Measure in that he contrasts the elegance of Shakespeare’s words with flashy dance music, and raunchy sex scenes (by the way, teenagers of the world, be sure not to bring your dad to this one). The bright lights and loud music contrasted with the grisly attempted rape and other such scenes provide a stark commentary on human behavior: beneath all the glitter and sex, there lies a more disturbing lack of restraint which needs to be accounted for. Falls is not afraid to challenge the Bard and does so with some frequency in order to reveal a darker—and perhaps truer—version of humanity.
Back to the actual language, Falls takes some liberties with the dialogue. Too many interruptions in Shakespeare’s language would have been distracting. Instead, the only character that interjects is Pompey, the pimp. Though hard to follow at times, the play is supposed to be a dark comedy, and Pompey’s addresses to the audience provide just that: comedy. Carefully placed throughout the play, Pompey’s “interruptions” remind the audience that the play is set in the not-so-distant 70s. Another colorful character is the unfortunately offensive Lucio. Jeffrey Carlson’s portrayal of the character is spot-on. There were too many instances in which a joke could have been capitalized on but wasn’t because of the nature of Shakespeare’s writing and the ability of the audience to understand. One such instance was the conversation between Pompey and Mistress Overdone (Cindy Gold), who runs the whorehouse. I never felt that misunderstanding with Lucio’s constant (and unfortunately directed at the “friar”) insults aimed at the Duke.
To not mention James Newcomb’s Duke would be criminal (I might even fear a sentence!). Newcomb handled the difficulty of having to play a role that leaves many people undecided. Especially in the context of governmental corruption in the 1970s, the Duke is a seriously flawed character (fitting with Shakespeare’s original intentions), and his flaws directly affect the lives of the people he governs. In the same way that the Duke’s actions affect the characters in the play, without Newcomb’s performance, the rest of the actors would seem a little confused and disorganized. Now, be that the effect of Shakespeare’s words or Newcomb’s portrayal, I leave it up to the audience; however, I’m inclined to believe it was the clear lack of clarity in his portrayal that made the Duke so enthralling.
The play was interesting, the characters thoughtfully portrayed, and the performance darkly entertaining. After all, isn’t that what Shakespeare wanted, to entertain? He can thank the cast and crew for the Goodman Theatre’s Measure for Measure.
Running Time: 2 hours with a 15-minute intermission
Through April 14