Chicago Theater Review: MEASURE FOR MEASURE (Goodman Theatre)

Post image for Chicago Theater Review: MEASURE FOR MEASURE (Goodman Theatre)

by Lawrence Bommer on March 19, 2013

in Theater-Chicago

YOU HAVE TO MEASURE CAREFULLY

At the core of this dark and fascinating tragicomedy is a situation seething with modern irony: Can you be both above the law and beneath contempt? Angelo, a sex-hating Viennese puritan, has been rashly entrusted with enforcing repressive vice laws by the supposedly absent Duke. But in Isabella, a chaste convent novice, Angelo beholds the very image of virtue in defense of which he sentenced Isabella’s brother Claudio to death for impregnating his fiancée Juliet.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of MEASURE FOR MEASURE at the Goodman, Chicago

Isabella’s pleas to save her brother’s life stir in Angelo no twinge of mercy. No, they ignite Angelo’s late-blooming lust, a sensual abandon that makes him as capable of carnal crime as any he sentenced for lesser fornications. (It’s no accident that the word “seeming” crops up constantly in the characters’ searing exchanges.) It’s up to the true Duke, who disguised as a monk has watched Angelo’s predations, to set things straight in his own excruciating way.

The ending, in which the now-revealed Duke orders three marriages and proposes to Isabella, is far from satisfying. Hypocrisy in power may have been exposed but Angelo comes way too close to succeeding and, to modern minds, his punishment is benign. Measure for Measure haunts. Is the law no better than its enforcers? Does a double standard perpetually undermine its power to persuade?

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of MEASURE FOR MEASURE at the Goodman, Chicago

But what you should never feel as the play ends is, as they put it in Candide, “All this scheming and plotting—you end up with not’ing.” Unfortunately, that happens to Goodman Theatre’s archly amoral revival. Even with the Goodman’s production value panache, it’s a problem play that will not be solved.

Set almost predictably and certainly stereotypically in the cynical 70s, Robert Falls’ all-star cast are almost dwarfed by Walt Spangler’s multi-level towers of graffiti, descending disco balls, neon signs, barbed wire, and caged cells, its decadent chaos contrasting with the Duke’s corporate-boardroom luxuries a la the 1%. There’s a great gulf between the Viennese politicians’ careful calculations and the superfly antics of Aaron Todd Douglas’ venal pimp Pompey or the exuberant ignorance of Sean Fortunato as a comparatively clean cop just working on “staying alive.”

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of MEASURE FOR MEASURE at the Goodman, Chicago

It’s a study in contrasts whose divisions run through the 150-minute spectacle. Jay Whittaker delivers a buttoned-down, neatly repressed Angelo totally unprepared for the erotic meltdown unintentionally triggered by Alejandra Escalante’s passionate Isabella. He mistakes her fervor to save her brother—and even more so her virginity—as a temptation to be smashed rather than resisted. If this bad boy learns anything from exposing his privates to a nun in the making, it’s hard to tell. But Escalatante’s ironclad virgin is equally oblivious to the cruelty of her chastity. In contrast, Kevin Fugaro’s solid Claudio is rooted in the instinct to survive, here even stronger than sex.

Besides a gratuitous “Last Dance” ending that retroactively makes you wonder if there was anything at stake in this sordid story, the production’s chief challenge is the play’s biggest problem—the ubiquitous, manically-manipulative Duke who, though he may have resigned his office, perversely  spies on everyone, stage-manages every moment, playing with everyone like a cat with his prey.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of MEASURE FOR MEASURE at the Goodman, Chicago

All but melting in his own mischief, James Newcomb’s absentee autocrat looks almost unbalanced by his clandestine machinations, unhinged by the sheer euphoria of playing God all over Vienna. This Duke is no moral force working for moderation between the letter and spirit of the law—he’s one more casualty of a narcissistic era gone bonkers. It’s all too easy to think that this play really is much ado about nothing.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of MEASURE FOR MEASURE at the Goodman, Chicago

photos by Liz Lauren

Measure for Measure
Goodman Theatre
scheduled to end on April 14, 2013
for tickets, call 312.443.3800 or visit http://www.GoodmanTheatre.org

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of MEASURE FOR MEASURE at the Goodman, Chicago

Comments on this entry are closed.