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Returning to Shakespeare for the first time since 2006’s grand-scale King Lear, in which Lear’s kingdom resembled a war-torn Eastern European dictatorship, the Goodman’s Robert Falls comes to the Bard’s late, dark comedy with an equally conceptual vessel for depravation. Falls’s Vienna looks an awful lot like the decrepit, debauched Manhattan of the 1970s. It’s clear from Walt Spangler’s intricately garbage-strewn scenic design to Ana Kuzmanic’s punked-out outfits to Falls’s soundscape: The show opens on a stylized, citywide orgy set to Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby” as novice nun Isabella (Alejandra Escalante) prays fervently in the foreground.
Though less relentless, the milieu recalls Calixto Bieito’s divisive Camino Real on the same stage last spring. The metaphor largely works here, with Shakespeare’s descriptions of a Vienna given over to corruption and carousing by a lax, licentious Duke (James Newcomb). When the Duke hands over the reins to the uptight Angelo (Jay Whittaker), it’s easy to see parallels to Rudy Giuliani. Or, perhaps more pointedly, to Eliot Spitzer: When Isabella pleads for Angelo to spare the life of her brother, sentenced to death for deflowering his lover out of wedlock, Angelo offers to cancel the execution in exchange for the virtuous nun’s virginity.
The success of any Measure for Measure—one of the scripts branded, or excused, with the label “problem play”—depends on our having some sympathy for both Angelo’s abuse of power and Isabella’s intractability. Whittaker shows us Angelo’s earnestness in the face of flouted law as well as his struggle with finding shades of gray within himself, while Escalante is compelling in her depiction of Isabella’s steadfast devotion to her calling and her awakening to the world’s disappointments.
But what of the duplicitous Duke, who, disguised as a priest, abandons his duties to interrogate his minions up close and manipulates them for reasons sometimes inscrutable, at other times selfish?
Newcomb remains reasonably charming even as his tampering gets more egregious, but as the final scene wears on, one suspects Falls hasn’t found a satisfactory solution to the ambiguous denouement. Yet it’s the director’s final flourish, in which the Duke’s caprice undercuts Isabella one more time, that will make this production’s most lasting impression.