Throbbing Donna Summer disco hits bookend director Robert Falls' provocative new Goodman Theatre production of William Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure," which has been smartly reset to seedy New York City in the late 1970s.
Admittedly, those who love traditional Elizabethan Shakespeare stagings will be aghast. Early on, Falls throws in simulated sex acts, nudity and drug use to fill Walt Spanger's stunningly realized garbage-strewn and graffitti-tagged set that buzzes with suggestive neon and florescent signs.
"Measure for Measure"★ ★ ★ ½
Location: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, (312) 443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (also Tuesday, April 2), 2 and 7:30 p.m. Thursday (no matinee April 11), 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday (no matinee March 23), 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday (no evening show April 14); through Sunday, April 14
Running time: About two hours, 30 minutes with intermission
Parking: Area pay garages
Rating: For adults: strong sexual content, nudity
But Falls' disco-era approach to "Measure for Measure" is more than justified and largely succeeds at making Shakespeare's play from the early 1600s feel much closer for adventurous audiences of today.
"Measure for Measure" has long been labeled as one of the Bard's "problem plays," since its mix of comedy, drama and deeply flawed characters made it difficult to categorize. Its setting in a depraved, brothel-filled Vienna also explains why "Measure for Measure" isn't typically taught in high schools.
The Duke of Vienna (a powerful James Newcomb) is flawed from the start, since he partakes of the licentiousness that has gotten out of hand in the city he rules (as seen in Falls' lust-filled pantomime that opens the show). Before going incognito as a priest, the Duke appoints the seemingly upstanding deputy Angelo (a creepily uptight Jay Whittaker) to clean up the city and enforce its lax laws.
But the unbending Angelo goes so far as to impose a death sentence on Claudio (a fiery Kevin Fugaro), who is found guilty of premarital sex with his pregnant fiancee, Juliet (a weepy Celeste M. Cooper). Claudio's sister, the novice nun Isabella (a strong Alejandra Escalante), pleads her brother's case, but finds herself being indecently propositioned by Angelo in a bargain to save her brother's life.
Surrounding all this drama are a number of lowlifes and compromised officials who help infuse the play with plenty of street-wise comedy. Falls has found a great supporting company to flesh out these multifaceted characters.
Jeffrey Carlson is a treat as the notorious gossip named Lucio, memorably decked out as a modern-day fop in a sea-green leisure suit. Aaron Todd Douglas is fun as the philosophizing pimp Pompey, and Joe Foust gets lots of laughs as the drunken and demented death-row prisoner Barnardine.
On the side of the law, A.C. Smith and John Judd both lend a sober gravitas to their respective roles as the warden Provost and the adviser Escalus. Sean Fortunato tries to bring in some laughs as the Brooklyn-accented cop Elbow, though his scene with the drug-addled punk Froth (Billy Fenderson) doesn't quite translate from its early 1600s origins.
Costume designer Ana Kuzmanic has clearly had a field day dressing up the ensemble in the distinctive and polyester-filled fashions of the 1970s, while lighting designer Marcus Doshi lays on plenty of disco flash when necessary.
Falls sometimes goes the easy route in his adventurous Shakespearean adaptation by updating some language (even going so far as to have Douglas' Pompey point out that his Elizabethan-era joke doesn't work). But the stunning stage pictures Falls creates, amid the sleazy Times Square setting on the cusp of the AIDS crisis, are certainly memorable.
Falls even finds a controvsial way to preserve the honor of the nun Isabella at the play's traditional "happy" ending that no doubt would have pleased anti-Catholic audiences of Shakespeare's day. The remedy is bound to raise plenty of eyebrows, but it's emblematic of the risk that ultimately pays off for Falls' daring take on one of Shakespeare's more complex problem plays.