The last time Robert Falls directed a Shakespeare play at the Goodman, where he serves as artistic director, he transplanted “King Lear” into a landscape that resembled war-torn Yugoslavia.
It was a shocking, riveting, gut-wrenching and epic experience.
Now, Falls is taking a similarly transformative approach to another Shakespeare work, “Measure for Measure.” Although the story takes place in Venice, this production looks and sounds like grimy, neon-lit, trash-laden, graffiti-splashed, disco-pulsing New York City in the 1970s. Walt Spangler’s sets, Ana Kuzmanic’s costumes and Richard Woodbury’s sound almost deserve top billing. The audience gasps and even laughs at the sheer audacity of some of the vividly cinematic tableaus unreeling on the stage, complex scenes involving crowds of actors, choreographed as if they’re being filmed in a Stanley Kubrick tracking shot.
The spectacle doesn’t always feel like a logical match with Shakespeare’s script, but more often than not, the NYC imagery brings sharp focus to the Bard’s centuries-old but still relevant themes: When does a government’s attempt to enforce law and order become so extreme that it turns into tyranny? And does government have any business outlawing and punishing sexual acts simply because some people say they’re sins?
Despite the serious nature of the theme and some dark plot turns, “Measure for Measure” has more than its share of humor, thanks to Shakespeare’s wit as well as some hilarious touches by Falls and his cast—knowing winks and asides that let the audience in on the joke.
To mention just a few standout performances in the large, impressive cast: Sean Fortunato is delightfully funny as a Venetian constable, playing him as a cop with a thick New York accent. A.C. Smith is wonderfully expressive as the Provost. James Newcomb revels in the dual identity of his character, the Duke, who improbably disguises himself as a priest with little more than a pair of eyeglasses. As the villainous bureaucrat Angelo, Jay Whittaker is tightly controlled in his character’s public persona, while revealing himself as a weasel-like hypocrite in private; he earns a good-natured hiss from the audience during the final bows.
As the nun Isabella, who’s trying to save her brother from execution and her own chastity from Angelo’s lustful advances, Alejandra Escalante is the play’s most sympathetic figure. And as the drama arrives at its final, rather convoluted scene, Escalante pulls off what may be the most memorable image in the whole production: an appalled, wide-eyed look on her face, expressing disbelief and dismay at what’s happening around her. It’s little touches like that, amid all the spectacle, that make this production of “Measure for Measure” one that’s likely to dance through your mind for a long time to come.
“Measure for Measure” continues through April 14 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago. Call 312-443-3800 or visit their website for tickets and schedule.