When Chicago's Goodman Theatre, for which I hold a season ticket, released it's lineup for the 2012/2103 season it named 4 plays and another "to be announced". I pondered; are they attempting to obtain the rights to something? Perhaps they're pursuing a particular actor for a particular role. When they declared that Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" was the 5th production I thought, "Well it wasn't a problem with getting the rights."
The director had decided to set the play in New York City during the 1970's. Rather than anything that said "New York" the set presented a non specific, garbage strewn, graffiti scarred, sex club laden urban landscape. This was a fortunate design choice as more than once in the early scenes the locale is identified as Vienna. It is difficult to present this play without sexual references as the entire play is centered around the sexual activities of the principal characters. This production contained an opening vignette depicting various sexual acts culminating in a veritable orgy on one side of the stage, setting the mood for the events that follow. It has been called one of Shakespeare's "problem plays", although comedic, it is also dark, at times cruelly so.
One issue with many Shakespeare productions is the actor's tendency to feel that, in order to do justice to the majestic and masterful words of the bard, they must rant and rave and rail their way through the play. What struck me in this production was the naturalism lent to the work by the actors. They make complex plot of the play is understandable by, while remaining true to the text, delivering the lines like everyday dialogue. The grand speeches presented in a non grand, at times almost understated manner.
As with most Goodman productions the visual aspects of the show were above average. Set pieces moved in and out and up and down. The dozen or so speaking roles are augmented by another dozen or so non speaking actors. These non speaking actors, used primarily as background, added to the rich texture of the production. One in particular caught my attention, a handsome, muscular fellow clad in tight jeans, a vest and sleeveless tee shirt, but that's another story, never mind.
Years ago I worked with a woman with an almost sacred respect for Shakespeare. She related to us how she felt his work remains timeless because of his keen observation of the human animal. Times, technology and fashions may change but the basics of the human condition do not. This is why, after 500 years, Shakespeare's work remains vital and relevant.