Where: Goodman Theatre, Albert Theatre
170 N Dearborn St.
When: through April 14
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Director Robert Falls’ production of “Measure for Measure” at Goodman Theatre is likely to create as much controversy as his 2006 “King Lear.”
His decision to set the play amid the decay and corruption of New York in the 1970s isn’t the issue, nor is the flagrant juxtaposition of serious tragedy and low comedy in a work long called a “problem” partly for this reason.
What’s disturbing is the way Falls subverts Shakespeare’s exploration of the balance between justice and mercy, order and chaos. The finale, replacing the pairing of the Duke and Isabella with a wanton stabbing (to the tune of Donna Summer‘s “Last Dance“), is the most dramatic example. But the reinterpretation starts even before the first lines.
The opening dumb show – to Summer’s “Love to Love You, Baby” – on Walt Spangler’s soaring, dark, graffiti-covered Times Square set strewn with piles of garbage includes multiple vignettes of decadence, debauchery, drug use, you name it. On a bed in the center, a half-clothed woman splayed out next to him, sits the Duke (James Newcomb), a gun raised to his temple in a gesture of profound self-disgust. He doesn’t pull the trigger, of course, but his despair at his inability to control his own impulses, much less a city morally run amok, colors our perception of why he chooses to leave and put Angelo (Jay Whittaker) in command – one of the play’s thorniest questions.
The Duke himself gives several reasons ranging from his need for a respite to a desire to see how his pious deputy handles power. But we later learn he already knows Angelo is a hypocrite who jilted his betrothed Mariana (Kate LoConti). And, anyway, he returns almost immediately, here disguised as an Irish priest in the Spencer Tracy mold, to keep tabs on what’s going on.
In other versions I’ve seen, the disguised Duke is the moral authority, and his presence guarantees that everything will turn out OK. Newcomb’s ambiguous manic-depressive performance, under Falls’ direction, casts serious doubts on that. Yes, he orchestrates the bed trick, with Mariana standing in for Isabella (Alejandra Escalante) to catch Angelo in his lies and deceit, but he doesn’t seem to have much of a handle on preventing the execution of Isabella’s brother, Claudio (Kevin Fugaro), for the simple act of getting his fiancé Juliet (Celeste M. Cooper) pregnant. And his antic behavior towards Isabella in the last scene comes across as torture rather than teasing, especially given the outcome.
Whittaker’s twisted Angelo arguably is a more interesting character. Rather than being a strong, self-righteous puritan enforcing draconian measures, he’s a timid, tormented weakling who becomes an uncomprehending victim of his own passions and sinks deeper and deeper into perfidy without being able to stop himself. We could almost have some compassion for him, if it weren’t for his betrayal of Isabella’s trust and his rigidity regarding Claudio. And one other thing: Falls has him practically rape Isabella in his office, which is taking it too far.
The siblings are Latino (they speak with thicker accents when they’re together), and Escalante’s Isabella is as cold as Fugaro’s Claudio is hot-blooded. Faced with the dilemma of whether or not to give up her virginity to the repellent Angelo to save her brother’s life, she pleads her case eloquently but we don’t feel she’s fully invested emotionally. This unfortunately detracts from the main story, whether comedy or tragedy.
In fact, Falls and his large ensemble are at their best in depicting – or, wallowing in – the general sordid milieu, and several of the supporting performances stand out. Jeffrey Carlson’s sarcastic, foppish Lucio is exceedingly funny, whether he’s unknowingly insulting the Duke to his face or doing his ineffectual best to save his friend Claudio. A scene in a drab, crowded magistrate’s office is a hoot, thanks to Aaron Todd Douglas as the pimp Pompey, who breaks the fourth wall to explain Elizabethan jokes to the audience, and Sean Fortunato as law officer Elbow, master of malapropisms. The only ones who come close to being moral touchstones are A.C. Smith’s staunch Provost and John Judd’s Escalus, though he’s not above taking bribes.
Striking images are another Falls forte, and Marcus Doshi’s lighting enhances them immensely. Ana Kuzmanic’s always apropos, often outrageous costumes are a visual feast all on their own.
So, taking the measure of this “Measure for Measure,” I’d say: Go with an open mind and expect to be entertained, even if you don’t agree with how Falls sees the play.