Chicago Shakespeare Company

The Immediate Theatre

Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall — measure for measure.

Written between Othello and King Lear, Measure for Measure must have absorbed a lot of spilled-over seriousness from those uncompromising plays. In this alleged comedy, Shakespeare sets up the burning conflicts so strongly that the obligatory happy ending is the play’s least convincing scene. It’s as if he stirred up in this repulsive tale more troubled waters than even Prospero’s magic staff could calm.

It begins innocently enough. Duke Vincentio decides to leave Vienna. In his absence he confers his power on the righteous and principled Angelo, who the Duke rightly assumes will enforce various long-ignored vice laws. Angelo does it with a vengeance, closing bordellos and reviving an old statute against fornication. (“‘Tis one thing to be tempted,” he declares, “another thing to fall.”) Claudio finds himself an early victim of this Moral Majority-style witch-hunt, condemned to death for impregnating Juliet, his betrothed. Desperate for his life, Claudio pleads with his sister Isabella, a religious novice, to implore Angelo for mercy.

Now follows one of Measure’s great scenes as Isabella halfheartedly (she too despises her brother’s license) urges Angelo to a mercy she secretly believes Claudio does not deserve: “O, it is excellent to have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.” Her cold rectitude stirs feelings in the hitherto icy Angelo he can’t control (apparently virtue attracts him the way its opposite affects the less repressed). He promises to free Claudio if Isabella will sleep with him — which she indignantly refuses. In Measure’s other great scene, Claudio at first approves of Isabella’s ferocious chastity (“I will encounter darkness as a bride”), but the fear of death — “to die, and go we know not where” — overcomes all else. He begs Isabella to comply with Angelo’s blackmail. A hard, hard lady, Isabella rails at her brother for daring to prefer his life to her honor. Clearly Isabella is a sister only in the religious sense.

At this point Shakespeare has erected an almost irresolvable dilemma, too cruel for comedy. But Shakespeare was commissioned to write one, and he tortures the rest of the play to reach its contrived conclusion. As if to reassure us that all will end well, the Duke has all along disguised himself as a friar to observe directly Angelo’s treacheries and Isabella’s plight. He could have stopped the dirty deeds at any time, but perversely chooses to set up his elaborate mousetrap to catch Angelo after he’s done his worst.

That involves such crude tricks as inducing Isabella to pretend to give in to Angelo and substituting at the darkly lit rendezvous the clearly masochistic Mariana (whom Angelo was to marry but dumped because of her insufficient dowry), and pretending that Claudio was killed (since even after he thought he’d bedded Isabella, Angelo cravenly orders Claudio’s death). Just as Angelo imagines he’s hidden his hypocrisy from all but God, the friar, now duke, exposes him and orders his execution. Thanks to the incredible intercession of Mariana and even Isabella, Angelo’s punishment is outrageously forgotten — and, as if to disguise the bitter aftertaste of these ugly events — with some mandatory marriages, Mariana weds Angelo and the Duke himself chooses the astonished Isabella. Not exactly poetic, let alone psychological, justice, it’s as if Shakespeare, knowing human nature too well, issued plenary pardons out of sheer weariness. All is not necessarily well that ends well.

All, however, is very well in this Chicago Shakespeare Company production. Brilliantly working against all the weaknesses in the plot, director Myron Freedman has created the perfect seedy background to explain these wretched doings: a creepily decadent, tawdry turn-of-the-century Vienna where the moral rot suggested by Freedman’s slum set spills over into livid pancake makeup on these Grand Guignol characters and into some splendidly sinister performances. Among many canny moves, Freedman changes the Duke (usually played as the reality principle who’ll set the crooked straight) into a schizoid, stage-managing sadist who’s more confident as an intriguing friar than he is as a stuttering, neurasthenic duke (rouged remarkably like Reagan). John Kevin Forsythe plays this merry prankster with an unctuous, Caligula-like amorality that’s got nothing to do with ensuring that good triumphs or even that puritanical cant gets it in the end. This Duke just wants to prove he’s Vienna’s official puppeteer and can cut anyone’s strings at will.

Much more human, unexpectedly so, is Mark Bartosic’s ingenious Angelo. With a pigeon-toed gait, crotch-covering body language, and an anal-retentive deadpan delivery, Bartosic precisely conveys all the mincing respectability Angelo artificially cultivates. You can feel how frail the facade must be, a shell soon to collapse against hard, cold Isabella. Interestingly, Bartosic shows us an Angelo even more defeated now that he wields great power and knows his lust, and he maintains Angelo’s withering misanthropy to the bitter end; the snarling apology to the Duke is no more sincere than this Duke deserves.

Though sumptuously written, Isabella is a killer role. How do you make an audience believe in a supposed nobility of spirit that preserves one’s honor at the cost of one’s brother’s life? Mary Beth Glasgow succeeds by shrinking her character. We see how much Isabella’s fear of life (let alone sex) contributes to her perverse purity. With a mousy self-effacement and clipped inflection, Glasgow’s novice reeks of cloistered, hothouse innocence, the kind of untested idealism that makes the pure of heart such efficient mass murderers. (Isabella would love the Khmer Rouge.)

A little man who just wants a long life, Claudio is no more heroic than his sister. But, particularly in his revulsion at extinction (“To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot”), he’s at least human. Steve Juergen registers much of Claudio’s ambivalence over wanting to save his life by prostituting his sister. But Juergen could work harder at heightening the terrible changes as Claudio moves from his death panic to a sudden hope to shame, to an even greater death panic as Isabella kills that shameful hope. It’s one of Shakespeare’s great emotional cadenzas, and when Claudio slaps the criminally virtuous Isabella, it has to flow from all the fear and rage the lines beget; right now, the slap looks like an afterthought.

In a caricature worthy of Hogarth or Daumier, Harry Althaus, playing the pimp Pompey, who runs afoul of the new blue laws, minces, sneers, and struts his back talk in a dirty pink leisure suit (which, like many of Michael Biddle’s costumes, screams for itself). And Mary Poole throws herself into the loudmouth harridan, Mistress Overdone. Mariana’s devotion to the man who discarded her is almost impossible to credit, but Julia Maish underlines the woman’s vulnerability as a rejected (and now statusless) old maid; still, it’s enough to give a feminist conniptions. Also working overtime at credibility is Michael Halberstam, who spews forth all the insufferable overconfidence of Lucio, Claudio’s too-zealous friend. (By the end, he’ll never make fun of strange friars ever again; significantly, Lucio’s is the only pride here that’s punished by a fall.) Don Renaud is wonderful as a world-weary courtier, while Freedman’s hilarious, sycophantic Viennese townsfolk are a clever touch, mindlessly cheering the rogue Angelo until, shamefacedly, they discover they’ve backed the wrong authority figure. These rabid partisans — the perfect marionettes for their duplicitous Duke — are dumbfounded to discover their “emperor” Angelo has no clothes, just a drive to drop his pants before nuns. The “Nungate” scandal hits Vienna; details at ten.

In my review of Emerald Tree Boa the praise I gave to the actor playing Paul should have gone to James Schneider. John Schneider did nothing to deserve it. My apologies to the former.