A radio ad for the Goodman Theatre's Measure for Measure calls it "rare"—not because theater companies tend to avoid staging this dark, unruly Shakespeare play, but because director Robert Falls has set it in late-1970s New York City. Yet anyone who's spent much time in the theater over the last few decades knows there's nothing unusual about that. It's become de rigeur to set A Midsummer Night's Dream on Daytona Beach or Hamlet on the moon.
Still, the ad is spot-on. It's rare for one of Shakespeare's plays to be ripped from its original setting, transplanted across centuries and continents—and still end up feeling vital, urgent, and utterly contemporary. At least for a while. If Falls and his stellar cast could maintain that vitality past intermission, they'd have a masterpiece on their hands.
As the play opens, the Duke presides over a corrupt citizenry, turned to vice because he's failed for years to enforce the local laws. Rather than face public contempt for reversing course, he charges his seemingly upright deputy, Angelo, to do the dirty work of cleaning up the city. Then the Duke vanishes, disguising himself as a priest so that he can keep tabs on his sweeping social experiment. Within hours, and to the Duke's horror, Angelo sentences the workaday fornicator Claudio to death.
Angelo's steely temperament and unwavering zeal for the rule of law are so well known he's said to pee ice. Still, Claudio's got one chance for salvation—or at least that's what his friend Lucio thinks. Lucio hurries off to find Claudio's sister Isabella, just as she's about to take her vows at the local convent, and convinces her to plead her brother's case before Angelo. When she does, Angelo's previously dormant libido goes into overdrive. He's mortified to discover that he lusts for Isabella precisely because she's so virtuous. He tries to resist, but in short order he offers her a deal: let me fuck you and your brother lives.
At first blush this story seems ill fitted to New York City in the disco era—or any other era, for that matter. No duke ruled there, people didn't speak in Elizabethan vernacular, and extramarital sex sure as hell wasn't a capital offense. But Falls and his savvy design team set the play not in an earthly Manhattan but rather in a fever dream of New York, something akin to Gotham City, where every vice and virtue is inflated to hallucinogenic scale.
Falls conjures this pyretic world in a vibrant opening montage. While massive, decaying sex-trade advertisements loom in the air, various corners of the stage host all manner of slow-motion sodomy. Isabella, framed by a blinding spotlight and dressed in full nun getup, prays fervently. The soundtrack is Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby." It's a gritty, graceful, and absurd world, the kind of place where dukes and discos coexist because nothing says they can't.
Like Gotham City, it's replete with pungent humor as well as menace. Mistress Overdone's whorehouse, for example, is as cartoonishly garish as the woman herself, yet the misery of her employees is unmistakable. Characters can flip from clownish to brutish in the blink of an eye. When Angelo realizes he's lusting after Isabella, taking the first step down a path he never thought he'd follow, he's sickened almost to the point of vomiting—when he's not giddy as a schoolboy. Making his proposition to Isabella, Angelo sidles across an enormously long couch to her—a protracted bit of physical comedy worthy of Stan Laurel—then violently grabs her, hikes her up skirt, and unlatches his belt before coolly deciding not to rape her quite yet.
In short, we never know where we stand in this world, and danger lurks in the most well-lit corners. It's exactly the right backdrop for the heightened passions and moral conundrums of this perplexing, demanding play, in which all characters seem to be jockeying for advantage—even if it means condemning those they love, or their own souls, to death.
But in the second half, the show's lethal edge dulls considerably. Part of the problem is Shakespeare's; the play becomes less concerned with the psychological and ethical dilemmas of Angelo, Isabella, and Claudio and more concerned with the disguised Duke's morally questionable—and ultimately inexplicable—efforts to manipulate their actions. But Falls starts playing for too much easy comedy (Claudio's executioner seems to have wandered in from Sweeney Todd), and the climatic scene, in which the Duke's myriad schemes ripen into a big reveal, feels empty and mechanical. An ensemble line-dance coda, peppered with a bit of invented violence, brings down the curtain with an irrelevant flourish, as though everyone's simply run out of ideas.