Shakespeare’s plays are comparable, in some ways, to the paintings of Mark Rothko. The more one tries to imitate or to tweak them, the more one realizes how delicately and deliberately balanced they are, and how hopelessly they collapse if the balancing act is frustrated.
Robert Falls‘ interpretation of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” at the Goodman Theatre takes a lot of risks. For one thing, Falls sets the play in 1970s New York rather than Renaissance Vienna, which makes some of the lines about Vienna a bit awkward given the set and the costumes.
Without spoiling the play (as Emmet Sullivan does early on in an excellent review in Chicago Magazine), suffice it to say that Falls is very liberal in his interpretation of certain key parts of the plot, particularly the epilogue.
But the basic elements of the play remain intact. The duke (James Newcomb) announces his intention to leave town for Poland — Falls doesn’t update this to New Jersey — and he puts the stern Angelo (Jay Whittaker) in charge in his absence, although he remains in the city in disguise. Vienna-New York is a very ungodly place, and Angelo makes it his business to turn things around, starting with condemning Claudio (Kevin Fugaro) to death for impregnating Juliet (Celeste Cooper), with whom he is engaged.
There’s an old rule on the books that calls for execution even for an engaged, but not married couple caught being intimate. The rule hasn’t been enforced for ages, but Angelo is the sort of leader to mine laws however archaic and to champion them over his feelings.
Claudio’s sister Isabella (Alejandra Escalante), a nun, is enlisted to sway the acting duke, but the only deal Angelo places on the table is a trade of her virginity for her brother’s life. The duke, disguised as a priest, comes up with an ingenious plan to benefit the innocent and expose the guilty, and he masterfully — or some might say invasively — manipulates the situation and protects Claudio’s life and Isabella’s honor.
Although one might have hoped that Falls would have left on the cutting room floor several points where actors knowingly wink at the audience and come out of character to mock Shakespeare’s lines, the modernized production is surprisingly successful, perhaps due to very well designed sets, costumes, and lighting — which helps the audience forget the incongruity of a helicopter in a Shakespeare play.
Newcomb’s duke and Escalante’s Isabella are particularly well performed, and both characters are played with strong wills and sharp minds, perhaps even slightly more mature than Shakespeare gave them credit for. Perhaps it was unintentional, but the fact that Escalante and Fugaro are the only ones to pronounce a proper Spanish “Isabella,” whereas the other characters offer a softer Americanized version, is particularly amusing given the setting in New York-Vienna.
In the end, the final decision at the end of the play will leave some viewers thrilled and impressed, and others horrified or furious. Perhaps the Lady-or-the-Tiger ending in Shakespeare’s original was more complex than the boldness of Fall’s vision for the closing moments of the play. But it would be a mistake, even for those who are offended by the ending, to allow that closing sequence to completely shape one’s view of a performance that is otherwise very powerful in many aspects.