Presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theater as part of Shakespeare 400 Chicago (a yearlong, citywide tribute to the Bard on the 400th anniversary of his shuffling off, mortal-coil-wise), this collaboration between Moscow’s Pushkin Theatre and London-based Cheek by Jowl puts a wobbly but exhilarating spin on an especially problematic problem play.
Measure for Measure is notoriously creepy, only partly because it concerns a prim bureaucrat named Angelo who tries to coerce a novice nun into sleeping with him. Modern audiences tend also to be disquieted by (a) the weird reticence the novice, Isabella, exhibits when it comes to saving her brother from execution, (b) the dangerous flakiness of Angelo’s boss, the Duke of Vienna, and (c) the Duke’s own hots for Isabella.
Director Declan Donnellan hasn’t got much new to offer regarding (a), but he’s brilliant on (b) and (c). As played by Alexander Arsentyev, the Duke is a palpably disturbed man whose political uncertainties seem to be tailing off into paranoia. Under the circumstances, it makes sense that he’d go underground after a fashion, posing as a monk. Whenever he’s not participating in the events of the play incognito, he appears as a kind of ghost presence, witnessing the misery and corruption his foolishness has caused. Indeed, the entire cast is onstage for much of the show, dancing, rushing, swirling through scenes en masse—becoming, in effect, the Viennese populace. Making it clear by their presence that the duke’s failures are a burden not only to him but to his subjects.
There’s a similarly keen understanding at work in Donnellan’s treatment of the Duke’s relationship with Isabella. I won’t ruin things for you by going into it, but the final passage between those two—and, again, between them and the all-important yet typically forgotten community around them—is made clear and true.
This Measure for Measure is acted in Russian with English supertitles that require more than the usual amount of concentration from us anglophones because of the period language. Highly physical performances ease the need for constant recourse to the readout, but they also lead to excess at times. (A scene devoted to the elaborate ruse used to catch Angelo up is delightful but nearly incomprehensible; some business involving microphones and crowd noises comes across as an awkward affectation, the same point having been made better elsewhere; and a bit of pageantry involving tableaux grows simultaneously chaotic and tedious as it goes on.) Still, the wonders are worth the setbacks. My advice: read the play before you head to the theater, then sit back and keep your eyes on the stage rather than above it.
Measure for Measure Through 1/31: Wed-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand, 312-595-5600, chicagoshakes.com, $68-$78.