Director Henry Godinez sets up his Havana-set Measure for Measure with a colorful nightclub scene, including singers and chorus girls, and closes it with a nod to the Cuban revolution in the air. But the play is still Measure for Measure and there are good reasons why it’s considered one of Shakespeare’s problem plays. The director has trimmed the usual 2.5 hour running time considerably, so nuances of the complex drama may slip by. But overall, Godinez’s direction and Chicago Shakespeare’s vibrant staging make for a rewarding evening of theater.
The play opens as the Duke of Havana (Kevin Gudahl) announces he’s taking time from office and turning over the reins to his deputy, Angelo (Adam Poss), dressed in a militia uniform. The Duke wants to see how Angelo will enforce the laws of Havana, including an old law against fornication outside marriage. A young man named Claudio (Andrés Enriquez) is in prison for his relationship with his fiancée Julietta (Felicia Oduh), which has left her pregnant. Claudio pleads with his pious sister Isabel (Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel), a novice nun, to intercede for him with Angelo and save him from execution. Angelo falls in lust with Isabel and demands she trade her maidenhead for her brother’s head. (Angelo is betrothed to Mariana, played by Alejandra Escalante.)
A couple of famous tricks enhance this plot. The “bed trick,” where Isabel and Mariana fool Angelo, and the “head trick,” where the head of another prisoner is brought to Angelo to prove Claudio is dead. Meanwhile, the Duke, now disguised as a Franciscan friar, wanders around giving advice (because he’s obviously a holy man).
Several characters add color and poetry to the language of the play. Lucio (Gregory Linington), a flaneur or “fantastic,” is a friend to Claudio. Elbow (Joe Foust), is the constable who is ready to arrest anyone and speaks in malapropisms. And the sprightly Elizabeth Ledo is Pompey the clown (and plays other parts). Barnardine, a prisoner, has few lines but delivers them powerfully; he was played by Ajax Dontavius on opening night, filling in for Debo Balogun.
Chicago music royalty joins Chicago Shakes for this production, with award-winning trumpeter Orbert Davis as music director, and composition and arrangements by Davis and Jorge Amado Molina. The interstitial music by a live nine-member band adds drama and excitement to Measure for Measure. Sound design is by André Pluess.
Director Godinez, a Cuban native, came here as a child and rediscovered his birthplace in 2003 when he visited for a theater seminar. His Cuban theme is only apparent at the beginning and end of the play but the militia uniforms and the flying of the Cuban flag remind us of the revolution to come. Scenic and projection design by Rasean Davonte Johnson and lighting design by Maria-Cristina Fusté create the visual mood, along with costuming by Raquel Adorno and hair and makeup by Richard Jarvie. Movement design is by Melissa Blanco Borelli.
Shakespeare’s “problem plays” or dark comedies, according to Harold Bloom, are usually considered to be Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida and All’s Well That Ends Well, staged last spring by Chicago Shakespeare. These plays may offer some comic material but veer off into complex, even troubling, drama. Measure for Measure was first published a few years after Hamlet, in about 1604.
Measure for Measure is not staged as often as many other Shakespearean plays. I last saw it in 2017 at the Public Theater in New York, presented by the inventive theater company, Elevator Repair Service, which has brought productions here to the Museum of Contemporary Art. I wrote that the production, “is refreshing in its approach to the Shakespearean canon. The play is done in modern dress, set at some indeterminate modern time and performed on a set furnished with office tables and a dozen chairs—plus six or eight early 1900s-era “candlestick” telephones. The cast proceeds at breakneck speed, with actors often speaking so fast you can’t understand them. But most often, the text itself is rolling up the wall and across the ceiling of the set.” (Elevator Repair Service performed their six-hour masterpiece reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby—in a play titled Gatz—in 2006 at the MCA theater. And in 2014, they brought their dramedy of a Supreme Court case, titled Arguendo, to the MCA theater.)
Measure for Measure continues in the Courtyard Theater at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier through November 27. Tickets are $47-$92 for performances Wednesday-Sunday with occasional Tuesday shows. Running time is 1 hour, 40 minutes.