When it comes to bold and audacious stagings of Measure for Measure (for my money, the most unpleasant of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”), it’s hard to top Robert Falls’s dark take-no-prisoners 2013 production at the Goodman, which reimagined Vienna as Times Square, circa the late 1970s. (Think David Simon’s The Deuce on HBO.) But Henry Godinez’s streamlined (about 100 intermissionless minutes) and vibrant production at Chicago Shakespeare comes pretty damn close.
Measure for Measure Through 11/27: Wed 1 and 7:30 PM, Thu-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 2:30 and 7:30 PM, Sun 2 PM; also Tue 11/15 7:30 PM and Tue 11/22 1 and 7:30 PM; no shows Wed 11/23 or Thu 11/24; open caption Wed 11/16 1 and 7:30 PM, ASL interpretation Fri 11/18, audio description Sun 11/20; Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand, 312-595-5600, chicagoshakes.com, $49-$92
Godinez (a resident artistic associate at the Goodman) sets the action in Havana on the brink of the Castro revolution. Mistress Overdone (Ana Santos), described as a “bawd,” actually runs the festivities at Cabaret La Trucha, where showgirls, singers, and emcee/clown Pompey (Elizabeth Ledo) cater to the whims of the decadent (including a tourist in comically small striped swim briefs and a sombrero, played with Ugly American panache by Joe Foust).
The Duke of Havana (Kevin Gudahl) has his doubts about what’s going on around him. So of course he decides the best thing to do is to go undercover as a monk, leaving the city in the hands not of his chief judge, Escalus (Lanise Antoine Shelley), a Black woman, but in those of his deputy, Angelo (Adam Poss), a lighter-skinned man whose revolutionary bent doesn’t hide his contempt for the debauchery around him. (Among other things, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara were both famously homophobic, considering LGBTQ+ people bourgeois and counter-revolutionary, as the horrific experiences of gay writer Reinaldo Arenas, highlighted in the 2000 film Before Night Falls, made clear.)
In an interview in the program, Godinez (who was born in Cuba around the time of the revolution and came to the U.S. as a young child) highlights the sexism and racism/colorism that pervades even the most publicly high-minded of revolutionary movements. Caught up in Angelo’s new insistence on enforcing Havana’s harsh laws is Claudio (Andrés Enriquez) and his pregnant fiancée, Julietta (Felicia Oduh). Is the fact that Julietta is darker than Claudio one of the factors prompting Angelo’s righteous fury toward their out-of-wedlock union? It’s not stated directly, but it definitely hangs as a possibility in Angelo’s decision to enforce the death penalty on Claudio.
The only thing that might dissuade him is Claudio’s sister Isabel (Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel), who visits him to beg mercy for her brother, only to find herself on the receiving end of an indecent proposal. (Hypocrisy? From revolutionaries? I’m shocked. SHOCKED!) With the help of Gudahl’s Duke, Isabel is able to work a typical Shakespearean “bed trick” on Angelo, expose his own secret, and save Claudio’s life. Further trickery involving the prison Provost (Robert Schleifer, who delivers his lines in sign language translated by others onstage—a suitable choice for someone who works quietly but efficiently against the injustice of the state) also throws Angelo off the scent of the counterplotters.
The production moves with frightening speed from the brightness of the cabaret (where Raquel Adorno’s costumes highlight feathery glitzy glamour) to the dankness of the prison, both worlds captured equally well by Rasean Davonté Johnson’s scenic and projection designs and María-Christina Fusté’s lighting.The most sobering interlude involves prisoner Barnardine (Ajax Dontavius). A lifer, his jailers believe he’d take the deal to die rather than continue his time in a living hell. But instead, Barnardine essentially tells the authorities to go to hell, while he continues to inscribe “You, 59, Me, 2020” on the walls of his cell—an anachronistic tip of the hat to Cuba’s San Isidro Movement, a contemporary group of nonconformist artists fighting for free expression on the island.
Unlike other Shakespearean comedies and even other “problem plays” like All’s Well That Ends Well, nothing really ends well for anyone in Measure for Measure (except maybe Claudio and Julietta). And perhaps that’s one reason setting it in Cuba around the time of the revolution is such an inspired choice by Godinez (well, that and the fact that it allows for fantastic Latin jazz under the direction of legendary Chicago trumpeter Orbert Davis). Scratch a purist like Angelo, and you’ll find a nihilist, or at least someone who uses their revolutionary ideals as a fig leaf for their own unsavory behavior. At least in Godinez’s production (whose lively and responsive ensemble is a sheer delight to watch in action throughout), we can believe that Isabel may have found the will to fight the patriarchy another day.