Playwright: William Shakespeare
At: Chicago Shakespeare Theatre at Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave.
Phone: ( 312 ) 595-5600; $48-$65
Runs through: March 20
Let's get one thing clear right at the start: Measure For Measure is a COMEDY. It affirms the pronatal values of its time, ending in two heterosexual weddings—one with a baby already on the way—and hinting at a third. The only person who dies in the course of the action does so naturally. Oh, its machinations are often outrageous and its resolution far from ideal—by OUR standards. And if none of its characters are very likable—well, doesn't British satire frequently mock even the innocent?
Anyway, after the frivolous Merry Wives of Windsor, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre apparently felt it HAD to do something dark, solemn and socially significant, and so we get a Measure For Measure replete with images 'ripped from the headlines': Sexual harassment. Hypocrisy in high places. Counterproductive 'family values'. Gender-biased enforcement of moral codes. The iconography is comic-book broad ( the repressed Angelo could be the illustration in a Victorian medical treatise on the evils of masturbation, while the fleshmongering Pompey is done up in baggy-pants burlesque drag ) . And let's not forget the Cabaret-styled songs sung in an Ivan Albright-hued brothel where girls dance—yawn—Offenbach's can-can.
The notion that abuse of power is a crime punishable by marriage—presented as only SLIGHTLY more desirable than the death penalty—needs all the levity its interpreters can muster if it is to be rendered acceptable to enlightened American audiences. Instead of softening the tone, however, Barbara Gaines' direction dictates that the cruelty of her play's universe be bludgeoned home at every opportunity, even to Neil Patel's Brechtian steel-and-laser decor, while her actors dutifully generate gobs of emotional anguish, eclipsing any attempt at intellectual discourse ( the latter further impeded by the choppy phrasing and flying saliva somehow considered to be hallmarks of classical elocution ) .
In a switch on their usual casting, Greg Vinkler plays the disinterested Duke Vincentio and Kevin Gudahl, the clownish Pompey, both retaining some measure of dignity, as does James Vincent Meredith as the compassionate Provost. The Badge of Honor, however, goes to Felicia P. Fields, who inhabits the role of Mistress Overdone with the aplomb of one long accustomed to rising above her material.