Thursday, April 25, 2013

"Measure for Measure" at the Goodman, Chicago

     I am trying to catch up, but I wanted to post some comments about the production of Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" which just finished its run at the Goodman Theater in Chicago.  "Measure for Measure" is one of Shakespeare's comedies.  It is not well-known and it is not often performed.  The play itself has some difficulties (see below) and the ambiguities in the text make it hard to perform.  Like many of Shakespeare's "comedies" it certainly is not very funny.  The play is about sexual coercion, sex, law and hypocrisy.  This alone makes it probably not a play for most High School drama departments.  But still M4M is an excellent play and I think Shakespeare makes some very profound and important points about all of these issues.  The hypocrisy of the high government officials (Angelo and, yes the Duke too), who would condemn some for breaking the rules while at the same time engaging in even more depraved sexual, objectifying and cruel behavior themselves lay at the heart of the this play and is certainly a timely theme.  Those holier-than-thou types - be they religious right-wing tea-partiers or US senators or media personalities - who would condemn others for their "depravity" and "immorality" need to look to themselves.  "Look out" they scream, "allowing gay marriage will destroy traditional marriage and family," ignoring the fact that as an institution marriage has already been ripped apart by the misconduct and irresponsible behavior of morally vacant heterosexuals!  Back from 1604 then Shakespeare holds up the glass and says - see anyone familiar in the reflection, hypocrite - Angelo - Vincenzo!  This is a play for our times if there ever was one.  And on the whole this production went a long way towards lifting that mirror, but in the end it failed, unfortunately and very disappointingly. 
     First, It should go without saying that this was a fully professional production with a terrific cast.  I might quibble with some of the character interpretations here and there but the acting was top-notch by the entire company.  The production itself was updated to New York in the 60's, when New York was over-run with peep shows, prostitution and gangs. The updating worked for the most part though there were a few disconnects.  The set was terrific and easily moved and reinvented itself from scene to scene. The prison scenes were particularly stark and terrifying.
    Now I have seen other productions of this play - most notably a production at Chicago Shakespeare from a few years ago which was directed by the brilliant and incomparable Barbara Gaines. I cannot help but compare a couple things with what I remember from that production.  First and notably, in other productions the Duke, Vincenzo has come off as manipulative, weak but relatively harmless.  He is usually drawn as someone who basically wants to do the right thing.  But not in the Goodman production.  The Duke (played by James Newcomb) was THE central character in this production.  He was extremely manipulative and I got the feeling that he was somewhat malicious, actually enjoyed causing the pain that so many of the characters experience.  I liked this, and thought it was honest to the text.  This helped make this production really move forward.  It was almost as though Angelo is set up by the Duke to fail; as though the Duke anticipated his fatal flaw and knew that he would not be able to overcome it.  With the Duke larger than life, the rest of the cast is automatically a little more diminished.  Angelo moves forward under the shadow of the Duke.  This actor, Jay Whittaker, was terrific.  His Angelo was uptight, self-righteous and pedantic (as Shakespeare wrote him) but when he fell, he really fell.  The "seduction" scene was almost a rape scene and it was powerfully acted by Whittaker and the Isabella of Alejandra Escalante. I do not remember that scene as ever being staged that violently in past productions, but I was deeply affected by it.  The other character that I was struck by was the Lucio of Jeffrey Carlson.  Usually this character is played as very flamboyent. Now, I have seen Jeffrey Carlson before - he was a terrific Hal in Chicago Shakes' Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and also Marlowe's Edward II.  Carlson is an incredible actor, one of the best I have ever had the opportunity to see perform.  He can do anything the director calls on him to do.  In this case, he was, surprisingly a rather understated Lucio and as a result he was much, much more sympathetic than usual.  When the Duke goes after him at the end it really seems very malicious and cruel, and completely out of proportion.  So, Lucio insulted you a little while you were disguised - get over it!  Well done!  The Pompey of Aaron Todd Douglas was also very brilliantly played. 
    Some quibbles - First, as a pastor (albeit not Catholic, but still) I have to say that dressing the Cardinal in full liturgical garb for an office meeting with the Duke was just plain ridiculous.  Religious professionals don't wander around in full liturgical garb when they are conducting their administrative duties.  A cassock with red lining would have sufficed and been more believable.  Also, Shakespeare has the Duke disguised as a Monk.  This production had the Duke disguised as a priest.  That didn't work for me. They should have kept the religious lay professional.  One cannot just put on a collar and pretend to be a priest. I found that change nonsensical.  And another quibble, unfortunately - for me the "justice, justice, justice" speech of Isabella in the last scene of the last act is the most powerful moment in the play.  But not here.  I thought she threw that line away.  It made no impact and was over before you even knew it.  Another thing that made me uncomfortable, the actors playing Isabella and her brother Claudio (Kevin Fugaro) peppered their lines with Spanish dialog. They were the token hispanics I suppose, but it was disturbing to me that they were the only Hispanic characters in the play and it just so happens that they are also the victims.  Why not a Hispanic Provost or police officer?  Why Hispanic victims?
    My most intense criticism is about the ending.  I am not going to be giving anything away here since the play is closed.  The ending as written by Shakespeare is problematic.  There is no denying it.  In the original text Isabella "gets" to marry the Duke at the end of the play as a "reward" for being the only character in the play with any kind of morality and honesty.  But he has to ask twice and she never actually accepts the proposal.  I think for Shakespeare's original audience that might have made sense.  What could be better for a commoner in the 17th century than to have the opportunity to marry up and to become a Duchess!  But for a 21st century audience this ending sucks.  The Duke has no morality at all, he has been manipulative and downright cruel to Isabella.  He uses her differently than Angelo, but in my mind his use of her is more insidious than Angelo's.  So why would she want to marry this man.  And besides she had committed to become a nun.  In the aforementioned Chicago Shakes production the last moment of the play has the Duke claiming her in marriage and her looking expressionless out at the audience as if so communicate her shock that the sexual abuse and objectification she has already experienced are not going to end anytime soon.  It worked, and I found the ending very powerful. Now to this production.  I was wondering what in the world this director (Goodman's Artistic Director Robert Falls) would do with this, but in my wildest dreams I could not have imagined his solution to this dilemma.
    Measure for Measure is classified as a "comedy" in the Shakespeare canon.  This simply means that no one dies at the end.  It certainly doesn't mean the play is funny - because it isn't and many of Shakespeare's comedies are certainly not funny.  The other category of plays are called "tragedies" and what distinguishes them is the body count at the end.  Take "Hamlet" for example.  The only principal character left alive at the end is Horatio.  Ok, so guess what.  How was the problem ending in this play resolved in this production? This director jumped genres and turned "Measure for Measure" into a tragedy.  At the very end, Bernardine (a very minor character who I barely remember from other productions) pulls out a knife and murders Isabella!  What! Yes, Virginia, "Measure for Measure" is not a comedy after all, it is a tragedy.  But wait.  What exactly in Bernardine's motivation for such an act?  Well, let's see.... hmmmmm .... there is none.  It is totally random.  He had just been pardoned.  Ok, maybe he is a psycho and likes to kill.  Perhaps.  I'm not sure.  This Berhardine is definitely a nutcase, but as originally conceived I think he is a little morbid, dark comedic relief.  Not here, he is a psychopath.  But was this made apparent in the production?  Well, no!  From Isabella's standpoint I suppose it beats being stuck with this asshole of a Duke for the rest of your life, so maybe the director was trying to help his poor Isabella escape a fate worse than death (marrying the Duke) by murdering her. Does it sound like I am not enthusiastic about this directorial choice?  Yes.  I absolutely, positively hate it!  It simply ruins the play.  It makes me think that the director, despite his skill (which is clearly tremendous) and the many years he claims to have studied the play in the end did not really understand it and decided to take the easy way out. 
     Look, ambiguity is part of the point! Real life rarely has things tied up and resolved as neatly as they often are in plays, musicals, operas, movies and tv shows.  We all have to live with a lot of ambiguity.  By 1604 when this play was written Shakespeare himself was dealing with a lot of painful unresolved issues. Whether the poor girl is forced to marry the jerk of a Duke or whether she managed somehow to put him off, nevertheless, IMHO, murdering Isabella is the ultimate directorial cop-out!  Why struggle with the ambiguous ending, we'll just kill her off.  Poor choice.  It ruined the play for me.
     Lastly, I attended a pre-play discussion led by the dramaturg, Neena Arndt.  Of course she couldn't give away the ending.  But given the profound change that the director made to the end I really question the point of the pre-play discussion.  Maybe it should have been called an introduction to Shakespeare.  For a discussion it needed to have been scheduled for after the performance so those of us who know our Shakespeare could have vented our extreme displeasure at the horrid directorial decision which was made for the ending. But I have another complaint, during the course of this discussion I asked a question about the relation between "Measure for Measure" and "All's Well That Ends Well."  Both plays deal with sexual coercion - M4M has the victim as a woman, but in AWTED the victim is a young man. Both plays were written in and around 1604.  There has to be some connection.  But she knew nothing about it and I got the sense she didn't even know AWTEW. What a disappointment.
     Would I return to the Goodman for more Shakespeare.  Yes, of course.  This "Measure for Measure" was a provocative and brilliantly acted production.  But I would challenge the director in the future to not look for cop-outs as a way to resolve difficult and ambiguous Shakespearean endings.
    Last comment - I read the review in the Chicago Tribune.  Did that reviewer actually really attend the play?  If so, my next question is did that reviewer actually ever read that play before he attended the performance?  It does not appear so to me.

Here is a link to what is left about this production on their website: Goodman "Measure for Measure"