Chicago Shakespeare's bold, bracing 'Foreign Fire' testifies to war's inevitability

Chicago Shakespeare Theater's “Tug of War: Foreign Fire” illustrates in sobering detail truths universal: War shatters families. It decimates communities. It crushes noblemen and commoners alike.

And war has no end, unlike peace - which is as fleeting and fragile as the paper crowns worn by the kings and would-be kings in director-adapter Barbara Gaines' expansive, invigorating production.

Comprised of William Shakespeare's “Edward III,” “Henry V” and “Henry VI, part 1,” “Foreign Fire” is the first of Gaines' two-part epic - the centerpiece of the Shakespeare 400 Chicago celebration. It concludes this fall with “Civil Strife” consisting of “Henry VI, parts 2 and 3” and “Richard III.”

Paring the plays to their essentials, Gaines chronicles a century of conflict - fueled by ambition, greed, ego and desire - between England and France. She conveys that conflict with consistency and clarity. And she pairs it with an eclectic score played live and anchored by tunes like Tim Buckley and Larry Beckett's “Once I Was a Soldier” and Louis Lambert's “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” with snippets from Mahler, Pink Floyd, Leonard Cohen and original music by composer/arranger/sound designer Lindsay Jones.

Gaines' exceptional ensemble consists of 19 actors including Chicago Shakes stalwarts Larry Yando, Kevin Gudahl, Barbara Robertson, Neil Friedman, Michael Aaron Lindner, Heidi Kettenring and others. The production struck me as something of a love letter to CST veterans, particularly Yando and Gudahl, whose mastery of their craft gets a superb showcase. The 19 actors play more than 100 roles. Clearly budget considerations account for the double, triple, quadruple casting. But the decision is also an inspired one, revealing the evolution of human nature. It's one of several canny choices in this fast-paced (even at six hours) production, which is the first to place these plays in this context.

French soldiers suffer defeat at the hands of the English forces in "Tug of War: Foreign Fire," the first of Chicago Shakespeare Theater's two-part epic that concludes this fall with "Civil Strife." Courtesy of Liz Lauren

The action unfolds on Scott Davis' set - dramatically lit by Anthony Pearson - and dominated by a three-story metal scaffold and a pile of used tires. A gold tire swing suspended from the rafters serves as the throne, the glittering prize that inspires so much carnage.

The bloodshed commences with the mercurial Edward III (a lithe, magnetic Freddie Stevenson) laying claim to the French throne. While his son (Dominique Worsley) fights in France, Edward confronts a Scottish insurrection, but is distracted by the virtuous Countess of Salisbury (one of several expertly shaded performances by Karen Aldridge). Her clever rebuff of his attempted seduction sends Edward back to the war alongside his heavily pregnant wife Queen Philippa (Kettenring), a superior strategist and compassionate conqueror.

"Tug of War: Foreign Fire" ensemble members make an anthem of Tim Buckley and Larry Beckett's "Once I Was a Soldier" in the first of Chicago Shakespeare Theater's two-part epic chronicling a century of conflict between England and France. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

Flash forward a couple of generations. England has lost ground in France. The French Dauphin (Steven Sutcliffe) derides the newly crowned Henry V played by John Tufts, whose introspective performance in “Henry V” - the strongest play in this trio - ranks among “Foreign Fire's” best. Henry's determination to conquer France sets the stage for the famous St. Crispin Day speech during which Henry rallies his outnumbered troops at Agincourt. Tufts impresses, delivering Shakespeare's famous call to arms not with noisy bravado but with quiet determination that proves far more compelling.

But victory comes at a staggering cost, paid mostly by commoners on both sides, whose perspective Gaines reflects. That's no easy task considering Shakespeare rarely quotes them. Yet Gaines conveys in brief yet telling moments the sacrifice of unnamed recruits (Alex Weisman, Daniel Kyri and others) and the defiance of subjects who proclaim “they're rolling out the guns again, but they'll never take our sons again” only to find their sons back on the front lines of another battle. It's a sobering reminder of the burden leaders place on their subjects, and the obligations that one generation saddles on another.

John Tufts' Henry V commands his troops "once more unto the breach" in "Tug of War: Foreign Fire." Courtesy of Liz Lauren

Before long, the truce sealed by Henry's marriage to France's Princess Katherine (Kettenring) unravels, thanks to dissension among England's nobles and the inexperience of Henry's bookish young heir, Henry VI (Sutcliffe).

Goaded by the impassioned Joan of Arc (a fierce, formidable Kettenring), Stevenson's King Charles VII counterattacks. But when the battle turns against them, the king turns against Joan. Another marriage, this one between Henry VI and Aldridge's Margaret of Anjou, ends the foreign war, but provokes a domestic conflict.

Henry V (John Tufts) woos Princess Katherine of France (Heidi Kettenring) to solidify his claim to the French throne in "Tug of War: Foreign Fire," running through June 12 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

Taken together, these history plays underscore oft-repeated scenarios involving the pursuit of power, the inevitability of war and the fragility of alliances forged in the name of peace.

Yet, as Gaines' production makes clear, peace eludes those who only halfheartedly seek it either abroad or in Shakespeare's England - where “Civil Strife” looms.

“Tug of War: Foreign Fire”

★ ★ ★ ½

Location: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave., Chicago, (312) 595-5600 or

Showtimes: 11 a.m. Wednesday, 5 p.m. Friday, 4 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday through June 12

Running time: About six hours, including intermissions and 45-minute dinner break

Tickets: $85, $100; box lunches or snacks available for an additional charge

Parking: $16.80 in the Navy Pier garage with validation

Rating: For teens and older, includes violence, some sexual content

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