Measure for Measure – by Maggie Donahue

April 10, 2013 in Blog by Cindy-Bandle-Young-Critics

Measure for Measure, one of William Shakepeare’s “problem plays,” arrived at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre last March, and was met with much praise by critics. The plot and script alone interested me far more than any other Shakespeare play I have read.

However, director Robert Falls brings Shakespeare’s work into the 20th century to create a masterpiece unlike anything I had ever seen before.  He set his adaptation in New York in the 1970s, a time and place that suits the play’s content perfectly. I also found that Shakespearian language is a lot easier to follow when it is spoken in American dialect and set in a more modern time, versus 15th century Vienna.

I walked into the Goodman last week to see Shakepeare’s Measure for Measure, not quite knowing what to expect. I have struggled through several Shakespeare plays in school, but have never actually seen one performed. Going into it, I certainly didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did.

Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” in that it deals with contemporary social issues. It doesn’t fit neatly into the comedy, tragedy, or history genres. The play is traditionally set in Vienna at a time of unlawful sexual activity. The Duke announces that he will be leaving Vienna for a time, and appoints a strict but unethical man named Angelo as temporary ruler. However, the Duke disguises himself as a Friar in order to observe what happens in Vienna in his absence. He sees Angelo unjustly sentence a man named Claudio to death as an example. He sees Angelo’s attempts to enforce the laws that threaten such things as brothels. He also sees Angelo’s hypocrisy as he attempts to threaten Claudio’s chaste sister into having sex with him.

Falls’ initial choice allowed for several other creative choices that contributed to his work. The graffiti and neon sign-covered set created a grungy urban feel, simultaneously dark and full of life.

The costumes, too, held their own significance. The Duke’s “disguise” included glasses and a change of clothes, which drew laughter from the audience and seemed to tease Shakespeare’s use of disguise. However, the real star of the show was Lucio’s suit. Lucio (Jeffrey Carlson) is a dandy who seemed to be, in this adaptation, portrayed as a closeted gay man. An audience favorite, Lucio serves as comic relief. Carlson’s performance is only enhanced by his suit. Lucio wears powder blue from head to toe, a bold fashion choice that only someone with Lucio’s loud personality could pull off.

Several stage changes to the play also enhanced the plot. For example, Angelo shares a kiss with Isabella just before the lights go out and the two actors reposition to show that the kiss was simply in Angelo’s imagination. Moments like this made Angelo’s infatuation with Isabella hilarious.

Another important change is when Falls has Angelo come close to actually raping Isabella. This is shocking to the audience, especially after we had started to really like Angelo for his amusing, unrequited feelings for Isabella. This alteration was, I believe, needed in order to shock the audience. In Shakespeare’s time, just the suggestion would have been enough, but in modern times, taking it further proved highly effective.

One of the biggest changes Falls made was to the ending. In the original script, the Duke asks Isabella to marry him. This ending is often disputed over because it is uncertain whether she accepts, and how she feels about the proposal. Falls took this uncertain ending and turned it into a disco dance with the entire cast. During this number, Barnadine, a grungy released prisoner, creeps up on Isabella while the cast dances around them, and stabs her. She dies in the Duke’s arms while the music is still playing. This ending was an odd way to end a show with so much depth, but seemed to make fun of the term “problem play” by creating an even more problematic ending.

The original script, the director’s choices, and the superb acting and set and costumes, created an unforgettable experience. Having been my first Shakespeare show, it will be hard to see another one, because Measure for Measure will be hard to follow.