Shakespeare in Russian rocks, especially when you start the evening with a shot (OK, shots) of vodka in a “Shakespeare 400 Chicago” glass.
Kicking off a year-long, city-wide celebration of The Bard’s death year, Bardolater-in-Chief Chicago Shakespeare Theater is presenting a super short, visually arresting run of Measure for Measure, a collaboration of Cheek by Jowl and its sister company, Moscow’s Pushkin Theatre.
This text is one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” with elements of comedy (disguises, mistaken identity, marriages at the end, and a brothel owner named Mistress Overdone, played by Elmira Mirel), with execution and deflowerment at its core; and, in this iteration, a police state with “what’s mine is yours and yours is mine,” where women have only one of three choices: maid, widow or wife.
The tight, taut Russian-speaking (and English super-titled) cast accept the challenge with aplomb, under the skilled direction of Declan Donnellan, on Nick Ormerod’s sleek and sparse raked stage, to unfold a Vienna where “the law was asleep; now ‘tis awake.”
They do so en masse, a well-choreographed clump of proletariat (curated by Irina Kashuba), pursuing, paparazzi-style, the Duke (Alexander Arsentyev) to such a degree that he goes undercover as a friar.
In disguise, he observes judge Angelo (Andrei Kuzichev) prey on novice nun Isabella (Anna Khalilulina), lusting for her lady parts, to “lay down the treasure of your body,” in exchange for her brother Claudio’s life (bass-playing Petr Rykov); “it’s one thing to be tempted; another to fall.” Claudio’s in Dutch because he knocked up his not-quite-legal-yet wife Juliet (Anastasia Lebedeva) and will lose his head for it.
There’s a lot of repression in Measure for Measure, and Russians know their repression, starting with a bank of old-school interrogation lights above the stage, illuminating the large, aptly red boxes, that, when solid, provide Soviet-style blocks to movement, and, when spun around to reveal openings, house the underpinnings of the play and society then and now, an electric chair and a sex booth.
Problem or not, Mr. Shax, in this vibrant, energetic production, still swirls around important personal and social questions, such as “the tempter or tempted, who sins most?”
He then reminds us: “We are all frail.” Or, rather, мы все хрупкая.
Measure for Measure is a five-night run and closes January 31. Cheek by Jowl and the Pushkin Theatre perform at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave. For tix and info, call 312-595-5600.