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‘Measure for Measure’ a sly barometer of today’s headlines

AlejandrEscalante stars as Isabell“Measure for Measure” directed by Robert Falls Goodman Theatre.

Alejandra Escalante stars as Isabella in “Measure for Measure,” directed by Robert Falls at the Goodman Theatre.

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When: Through April 14

Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn

Tickets: $25-$86

Info: (312) 443-3800;

Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission

Updated: April 20, 2013 6:11AM

A profoundly corrupt clergy. Hypocritical, moralistic politicians engaged in sexual indiscretions that run the gamut. Cops with a taste for brutality. A thriving sex industry that knows the power of a payoff. Prisons packed with both the deserving and undeserving. A crumbling infrastructure. Drugs.

It is not at all hard to see why director Robert Falls chose to stage Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” now. The play could be a riff on current headlines. But of course it’s always more palatable to hold the mirror up to nature at a slight remove, so he has taken us back to New York in the 1970s, a period (and I lived through it) when the city was at its nadir — plagued with drugs, smut and vast encampments of the homeless living in cardboard boxes that stretched onto Fifth Avenue. Of course there also was disco, and Donna Summer singing her 1978 hit, “Last Dance.”

So yes, a fitting transposition, and when the Elizabethan references don’t quite synch, Falls uses Brechtian tactics and winks at us.

For all its steamy depravity, “Measure for Measure” is an emotionally cold play about the inevitable backfire triggered by all forms of extremism, whether “in the pursuit of liberty” or “law and order.” And this production is notably chilly. In fact, it is difficult to feel invested in the crucial plot line that finds a novice nun, Isabella (Alejandra Escalante), forced to choose between giving up her virginity to the odious city deputy, Angelo (a deftly smarmy Jay Whittaker), or seeing the execution of her brother, Claudio (Kevin Fugaro), go forward.

Far more engaging are the scenes that unfold in grim city offices, with a particularly hilarious court hearing full of the flotsam and jetsam of society, and a tic-ridden cop (Sean Fortunato is priceless) trying to make his case. James Newcomb is spot-on as the dual-faced “mayor in absentia” who disguises himself as an Irish priest. A.C. Smith (will someone please write a one-man show about Harold Washington for this actor?) is ideal as a prison warden. Aaron Todd Douglas is on top of his game as a fast-thinking pimp. Joe Foust is memorable as both a Roman Catholic cardinal and homicidal prisoner. Jeffrey Carlson is a stylish, sexually ambiguous fop in Tom Wolfe couture. And Celeste M. Cooper is impressive as Juliet, a most unfortunate woman.

Walt Spangler’s set is period perfect but elephantine in this play in which there are no good deeds, and few “perps” aptly punished.

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