Most people have had some exposure to Shakespeare. Even those who have never gone to the theater have most likely seen a work of Shakespeare in some form, even if it’s Baz Luhrmann’s campy take of “Romeo & Juliet” in a modern setting—Shakespearean dialogue still intact.
Having snickered my way through aforementioned modernization in my freshman-year English class, I was extremely wary going into Robert Falls’ new take on “Measure for Measure,” set in an ambiguous city which is a loosely veiled ode to New York City in the 1970s. After all, terms like “thyself,” “snow-broth,” and “palsied eld” hardly lend themselves to 70s speak.
However, the story of “Measure for Measure” suits the 20th century surprisingly well. There is a considerable lack of friars and sword fights, and once you overlook titles such as “Lord” and “Duke,” what is left seems more suited to the seedy underbelly of New York than the early 17th century. After all, prostitutes, policemen and nuns are still around nowadays, aren’t they?
Of course, this still doesn’t solve the “problem” of Shakespearian language. But thanks to skillful performances from the entire 25-person ensemble cast, even the most antiquated language seem barely out of place. James Newcomb’s Duke and Aaron Todd Douglas’ Pompey are of particular note, both for their impeccable timing and self-awareness—because sometimes Shakespeare is ridiculous, and there’s no need to pretend otherwise.
Meanwhile, Cindy Gold’s Mistress Overdone lives up to her name and Jeffrey Carlson’s Lucio is a shining example of that opportunistic, two-faced flatterer we all know and love to hate. Alejandra Escalante deftly delivers a complex performance as Isabella, the heroine and nun trainee who constantly walks the fine line between admirably steadfast and irritatingly self-righteous.
But the cast members are not the only stars to shine in “Measure for Measure.” Indeed, it is no actor, but Walt Spangler’s gorgeous and multi-purpose set which steals the first few scenes with its vaguely steampunk flair. Luckily, this stylish stage is used for equally daring staging, with slow-motion scene transitions that seem like something pulled from a Quentin Tarantino movie—a nice and unexpected touch.
Still, even this skillful adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” is not without problems. In this case, all the problems stem from Barnardine, a problematic prisoner of questionable purpose. He does not further the plot, nor does he provide any noteworthy laughs—but he does twirl a knife menacingly. Honestly, it was more difficult for me to overlook the fact he had a proudly displayed knife in prison than it was to overlook the Shakespearian language.
It is only, though, in the final second that the production hits a sour note. One of the most unique features of “Measure for Measure” is its “open silence” ending, which—logically—could be interpreted and staged one of a few ways. In the last line of the play, Isabella is asked a yes or no question. Her response is usually added through staging—most commonly a silent acceptance. Robert Falls, however, chooses another option so inexplicable it demands an explanation—one that it infuriatingly never receives.
“Measure for Measure” is playing at the Goodman Theatre, clocks in at approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes long, and runs through April 14