Photograph: Liz Lauren/Goodman Theatre
Warning: This post contains spoilers about the ending of the new Goodman Theatre production of Measure for Measure.
Measure for Measure, the new staging of Shakespeare’s problem play at the Goodman Theatre, opened for the public this week. It already has the theatre world buzzing. Director Robert Falls shook up the whole production by moving it to 1970s Manhattan while keeping the original language from the Bard.
Quick plot summary: The Duke of the city decides it has been overrun by sin, so he takes a break and leaves his ascetic second-in-command, Angelo, in charge, hoping that he can clean up the city. The moralistic Angelo quickly condemns Claudio, a young citizen, to death for the crime of impregnating Juliet before marrying her. Claudio’s sister, a nun named Isabella, begs for his life. Angelo offers to pardon Claudio but only in exchange for Isabella’s virginity. Madness ensues—along with mistaken identity and many other Shakespearean hallmarks.
Falls has made a lot of changes, and it’s worth checking out the new production whether you’re familiar with the play or not. Set in disco-era Times Square (when the streetscape was colored by graffiiti, peep-show signs, and explicit neon signs), Falls brings a whole new meaning to urban vice. In fact, Vice would probably make an HBO documentary about Falls’s updated world.
For those who have seen it, though, there’s one thing no one can stop talking about: the last two seconds.
So . . . what was that? The play is ending well enough, with a series of weddings and Isabella vindicated for her condemnation of Angelo. But then, during the final beats of the closing number, another recently released prisoner named Barnardine sneaks up and violently stabs one of the principal characters. The curtain closes on that character dying while everyone dances to Donna Summer’s “Last Dance.”
Uh, what? Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones is right that the ending will “drive some folks crazy.” Time Out Chicago’s Kris Vire says the ending “will make this production’s most lasting impression.” We agree. So we went to the source and called Falls on Tuesday with a simple question: “WTF?”
“I’m very much in a tradition that goes back almost 400 years of people struggling with a play by Shakespeare that does not end as much as it stops,” Falls says upfront. In the original Measure for Measure, the duke proposes to Isabella, but it’s not written whether she accepts. “I think that traditionally the play ended with Isabella taking the duke’s hand and going off to marry him. In 20th century [productions], that has not been the case. There have been all sorts of instances of the play ending in a much darker way, which I think is justifiable.”
In Falls’s mind, the duke is not the grand savior of the city after Angelo’s rule but rather an egocentric, incompetent ruler. “He has just pardoned a murderer in front of people, in effect saying, ‘Hey, look at how merciful I am.’ Then he, a 60-year-old man, turns to a 17-year-old and says, ‘And now you’re going to marry me.’ He’s insane.”
The ’70s setting played a role too. “So much of the production was inspired by ’70s imagery, a sort of moral landscape of complexity. It was a bit of an homage, particularly to a movie called Blow Out, which ends on a similar note,” he says. “Even going back to the ’60s with Easy Rider, the world is not always tied up neatly and easily, and the innocent people do come to bad ends.”
He’s already gotten mixed reviews from theatregoers: “One woman went bonkers, screaming at me in the lobby, by what she was an aberration to the play, although she admitted she didn’t know how it originally ended,” he says. But ultimately Falls is happy to have started the conversation.
“I think the ending is disturbing,” he continues. “That’s what the nature of theatre should be—to challenge people into wanting to talk about it. Shock is something we rarely confront anymore in the theatre. Listen, it’s nothing compared to me watching an episode of Breaking Bad.”
So, have you seen Measure for Measure? What did you think?
Measure for Measure runs through April 14 at the Goodman Theatre. For info, goodmantheatre.org.