Why is Measure for Measure still classified as a Romantic Comedy? Its lovers are forced to endure fraud, hypocrisy, blackmail, sexual assault, breach of promise and covert surveillance, all of it orchestrated by an authority figure whose idea of a satisfactory resolution is to forgive Bad Men their misdeeds before legally binding them to Good Women—a boon he grants himself as well.
The plot, as Shakespeare wrote it, locates us in Vienna—a lurid sinkhole of vice, exploitation and chicanery. There, the reigning Duke Vicentio proposes to embark on an undercover fact-finding mission. He delegates administrative duties in his absence to his straitlaced deputy. No sooner does the pious Angelo assume command, however, than he proclaims "fornication" a capital crime and condemns young miscreant Claudio to death, despite the pleas of the culprit's pregnant bride-elect. When Claudio's sister Isabella, a novice nun, attempts to intercede, Angelo informs the chaste maiden that he will spare her sibling in exchange for her virginity. After protracted distress and despair, the incognito Duke doffs his disguise to take action toward bringing about a bloodless ending.
Oh, and did I mention Angelo's own jilted fiancée, and the Duke's unsolicited eleventh-hour offer to make Isabella his wife? Elizabethan audiences might have been content with wedlock secured under coercion fulfilling comedy's obligatory "life-endorsing" principles, but modern marital practice requires more than simple pairing of Jacks and Jills.
"I think the [play's] ending is disturbing," declared Goodman director Robert Falls, whose 2013 production for the Goodman Theatre not only transferred the setting from 17th-century Austria to the sordid streets of New York City's Times Square during the 1970s, but added a post-curtain call epilogue upending any pretense of ethical redemption arising from hubristic deception. "Shock is something we rarely confront any more in the theater. Listen, it's nothing compared to watching an episode of Breaking Bad," an unrepentant Falls assured indignant playgoers protesting this reversal, reminding them that the nature of theater to lies in challenge, its purpose to provoke further discussion.
Henry Godinez takes this gritty approach a step further in his "enhanced audioplay" adaptation for Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the play's locale now the Caribbean port-city of Havana in 1958—barely a year before an uprising led by the brothers Raul and Fidel Castro would unseat the dictatorial regime of Fulgencio Batista. Video designer Rasean Davonte Johnson and sound designer Pornchanok Kanchanabanca create a panoramic picture of urban squalor where impoverished citizens loiter in the doorways of abandoned buildings scarred by broken walls and peeling paint, while the remaining descendants of privilege dating back to the days of Spanish rule idle in decadent luxury, garbed in furs and diamonds. In such a universe, innocent and guilty alike are privy to the whims of those in power, leaving a solitary remorseless convict and a likewise cloistered nun the sole adherents to their moral convictions.
Himself a Cuban-American, Godinez was immediately aware of the connection between Shakespeare's fairytale Vienna and the conditions suffered by his own immigrant parents. Angelo may represent "the discontent looming on the horizon" before succumbing to the absolute corruption engendered by absolute power, but the real spirit of revolution, Godinez insists, lies in Barnardine—the gruff, anti-social wastrel that the Duke releases from prison in an excess of generosity. "[He is] the smallest character in the play, but [his] revolution is like that happening now in the activism of young black rappers, artists and intellectuals."
If corruption and rebellion continue to this day, then is it surprising, during this extraordinary spring of 2021, that the season should feature not one, but two, online productions of this enigmatic drama? How better for theater to reaffirm its uncanny talent for speaking to a global diversity of ages, cultures and audiences?
Chicago Shakespeare Theater presents Measure for Measure in connection with its ShakesSTREAM series, streaming through May 16 at www.chicagoshakes.com
The Goodman Theatre presents Measure for Measure in connection with its Encore series, streaming through May 9 at www.goodmantheatre.org
Mary Shen Barnidge