By William Shakespeare
Directed by Declan Donnellan
Designed by Nick Ormerod
Produced by sister companies Cheek by Jowl and Pushkin Theatre
Playing at Chicago Shakespeare
Shakespeare 400 Festival Off to a Running Start
The Shakespeare 400 Festival is finally here, and the Russian-language production of Measure for Measure now at Navy Pier is a sign that we have a wonderful year to look forward to. Under the direction and design of Cheek by Jowl artistic directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, respectively, this highly imaginative production captures both the brutality and the dark humor of a play that’s tone Shakespeare scholars have often expressed difficulty understanding. Donnellan and Ormerod choose to take Measure for Measure deadly seriously, and their talented Russian actors tell a story of hypocrisy, self-deception, and naiveté so clearly, you’ll understand the play no matter what language you speak.
One of the most important choices the directors made, which is apparent in the show’s first few minutes, is the focus they placed on the personal journey of the Duke (Alexander Arsentyev). When we first see him, he is being closely pursued by the rest of the cast in a manner which, while not outright threatening, is certainly unnerving. Though he has some fun with their penchant for mirroring him, he ultimately decides his discomfort with his public scrutiny is too much to bear, and temporarily hands power over to his deputy, Angelo (Andrei Kuzichev). The deputy, a weedy man with an unchallenged reputation for moral conservativism, is charged with cleaning up all the licentiousness which sprang up while the Duke ignored Vienna’s ancient laws. The Duke cannot, after all, punish people who, for the most part, were following his lead, but he feels things cannot be allowed to remain as they are. Angelo immediately gets down to business by condemning to death and publically humiliating a man named Claudio (Petr Rykov) for fornicating with his own fiancé, Juliet (Anastasia Lebedeva), and impregnating her. The Duke, who is watching in the guise of a friar, begins to wonder if he has made a terrible mistake.
Claudio’s sister, Isabella (Anna Khalilulina), is a novice nun, and attempts to persuade Angelo to spare her brother’s life. We sense from Isabella’s indifference upon hearing of her brother’s arrest that the history between the two was not altogether good. Partly, out of pride, she waits to plead his case until one of Claudio’s friends begs her to. But, as death is far too extreme a punishment, she does make a genuine effort with Angelo. The regent is initially unwavering, but Isabella’s appeals to Christian piety ironically awaken his lust. While the Duke witnesses with horror the misery prisoners are subjected to, Isabella struggles with how to put her Order’s principles into practice in the real world. When Angelo finally outright offers to trade sex for her brother’s life, she attempts to comply, but is so disgusted by his touch, simply cannot bring herself to go through with it. After she flees his office, she declares that she did so to spare her, Claudio, and Angelo’s souls from hellfire, a post-hoc rationalization she struggles to convince herself of.
It is a testament to the skill of the actors that their interpretations of these characters were so clear, despite the language difference. Shakespeare’s text is projected above the stage, but the choices about what motivates the Duke and Isabella came from the company, not just the text. I won’t give away all the theatrical devices and character insights here, but I will say that this Measure for Measure is an immensely satisfying way of understanding the story, as well as presenting it. Chicago Shakespeare has eliminated its usual thrust, and replaced it with a proscenium that appears to be brick. The only scenery is a series of large red cubes, and changes in location and character entrances are indicated by the cast rushing across the stage. This minimalist use of objects and focus on human bodies further emphasizes the importance of character to the story, as well as lust.
The circumstances through which Angelo’s cruel edicts are resolved are rather unrealistic, and the production makes no attempt to hide that. Instead, they are presented as part of the Duke’s awakening to the proper use of his power, and the return of love (and Pavel Akimkin’s music) to a brutal world. The concept is distinctly Eastern European, and I hope that all the other shows that come through as part of the World Stages series as part of the festival will do such a fine job of putting a native spin on what they find fascinating about Shakespeare.
Reviewed January 27, 2016
For more information, see Measure for Measure’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at Chicago Shakespeare on Navy Pier, 800 E Grand Avenue, Chicago. Tickets are $68-78; to order, call 312-595-5600 or visit chicagoshakes.com. Performances are January 28 and 29 at 7:30 pm, January 30 at 3:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and January 31 at 2:00 pm.