Measure for Measure

Barnardine (Debo Balogun) raises the flag of Cuba in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of Shakespeare’s "Measure for Measure."

Director Henry Godinez's production of “Measure for Measure” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater moves Shakespeare's so-called problem play from Vienna to Havana, but aside from the new frame, it's fairly straightforward — albeit trimmed to a runtime of about 100 minutes.

The evening (pre-show and show) opens with a scene in a 1950s Havana night club complete with shimmering showgirls, music by Orbert Davis and Jorge Amado Molina and sultry singers Espuma (Kidany Camilo) and Mistress Overdone (Ana Santos), the latter in a crimson satin gown. She runs the club with help from bawd and clown Pompey (Elizabeth Ledo), and the guests include Claudio (Andrés Enriquez), Julietta (Felicia Oduh) and other characters we'll meet later on. Even the Duke (Kevin Gudahl) is there, but he seems to be agitated, presumably by the libertine behavior and lax law enforcement he's allowed to flourish in town.

In the program notes, Godinez, who is Cuban-American, indicates that this opening suggests Cuba under the corrupt Batista regime, while the Duke’s successor to power, Angelo, is meant to represent the revolution. The finale, highlighted by scenic designer Rasean Davonté Johnson's projections, references more recent happenings in the country. Godinez also addresses colorism on the island, he says in a program interview, by having the Duke appoint Angelo (Adam Poss) as his deputy rather than the more qualified Escalus (Lanise Antoine Shelley), who here is Black (and a woman), and by regarding Barnardine (Ajax Dontavius) as a suitable stand-in for Claudio, also because he's Black, though he simply refuses to be executed. 

Unfortunately, drawing such direct parallels complicates matters, especially when it comes to the Duke. In Godinez's world, he's seriously flawed and incapable of ruling properly, so he steps aside — to retire to Tampa — then returns almost immediately and tries to straighten things out but risks making them worse. It takes the level-headed Provost (Robert Schleifer) to save the day.

Gudahl plays a flustered, erratic Duke very well, but this interpretation doesn't quite fit the play as written. It's more likely that the Duke leaves town specifically to test Angelo because he knows his deputy has mistreated his betrothed Mariana (Alejandra Escalante), and the abuse of power that transpires in his absence inspires him to test the others, too. The Duke is in control from head trick to bed trick. And since an already deceased substitute for Claudio is found, the only really bothersome detail — to modern audiences though probably not to Elizabethan ones — is the Duke's proposal to Isabel (Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel), who already has endured so much.

Godinez cannily handles her reaction with his ending, and Gonzalez-Cadel gives a heartfelt performance throughout as a virtuous, deeply religious young woman asked to sacrifice her virginity to save the life of her brother Claudio. She refuses, even when Claudio himself pleads with her, and at times I wondered if we were supposed to think she was too rigid in her refusal.

Poss' Angelo arguably is the most interesting character because he starts out almost as innocent and sinks into evil step by irrevocable step. When Isabel first entreats him for her brother's life, his lust — and its physical manifestation—takes him by surprise and might be comical but for the consequences as he becomes increasingly hypocritical and determined to have his way, to the point of almost assaulting her in his office. 

Per usual at Chicago Shakespeare, the supporting cast is strong, among them Gregory Linington as Claudio's friend Lucio, Joe Foust as master-of-malapropisms Elbow and Ledo, whose Pompey practically steals every scene she's in. 

The physical production didn't have quite the “wow” factor I expected, and I wish there was more Cuban music throughout the show. That might make Godinez's concept more integral to the story rather than superimposed on it.

By the way, if this “Measure for Measure” strikes you as familiar, you probably watched the digital version of the play directed by Godinez during the lockdown. Gonzalez-Cadel starred in that one, too, and the visuals were mesmerizing.

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