Chicago Shakespeare wraps epic with brilliantly acted 'Civil Strife'
Imagine Chicago Shakespeare Theater's theatrical epic "Tug of War" as a six-course dinner at a three-star Michelin restaurant.
Last spring, adapter/director Barbara Gaines and her superior ensemble served up "Foreign Fire." Comprised of William Shakespeare's "Edward III," "Henry V" and "Henry VI, part 1" and rooted in a century of conflict between England and France, the production was a bracing testament to war's inevitability. Now comes the rest of the feast.
"Civil Strife" unfolds on the home front as England's houses of Lancaster and York battle for the throne. Consisting of "Henry VI, parts 2 and 3" and "Richard III," "Civil Strife" examines the wreckage that results from unchecked ambition and the pursuit of vengeance.
Together, these marathon productions form the centerpiece of Shakespeare 400 Chicago, the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. The work is an impressive accomplishment and much of the credit rests with Gaines, whose illuminating, judiciously condensed adaptation pares these plays to their essentials. The result is an articulate, accessible production that moves rather briskly even at six hours.
As domestic turmoil replaces international conquest, the sweeping scenes that dominated "Foreign Fire" give way to the more intimate, telling exchanges of "Civil Strife." In the lone convincing expression of love, a queen bids her banished lover farewell just as the carnage commences. While the death toll rises, a beleaguered king muses on a simpler life and foot soldiers confront war's terrible price. And a smiling killer plots his deadly ascent.
Gaines frames the plays with two nonspeaking characters: a soldier called for active duty and the wife unwilling to let him go. And she pairs the tales with an assertive, rock-infused score featuring songs by Leonard Cohen, Tim Buckley and Linda Perry along with original music by composer/arranger Lindsay Jones among others. The songs are performed by an onstage quartet tucked beneath set designer Scott Davis' soaring scaffolding. Upstage, a giant screen looms. It drips with blood as the unsettling reflection of carnage in real time.
But the not-so-secret ingredient in this theatrical buffet is Gaines' stellar ensemble, which includes Chicago Shakes veterans Larry Yando, Karen Aldridge, Kevin Gudahl, Michael Aaron Lindner and Timothy Edward Kane among others. More about them later.
The action begins with the honorable but ineffective King Henry VI (a delicate, subtle Steven Sutcliffe) introducing his new bride Margaret (the dynamic Aldridge) for whom he has relinquished hard-won French territory. That's a bitter pill for his nobles to swallow. Factions form as they angle for power and challenge Henry's right to the throne. Some support the king's Lancastrian claim, symbolized by the red rose. Others support Yorkist Richard Plantagenet (the dogged, delectably dangerous Yando), of the white rose, whose fiercely loyal sons Edward (Lindner), George (John Tufts) and Richard (Kane) prove merciless allies.
Meanwhile, populist firebrand Jack Cade (Gudahl, channeling Donald Trump in a raucous, tour-de-force performance) incites rebellion. Civil war ensues with the crown shifting back and forth until it settles on the head of Lindner's Edward IV, who takes Heidi Kettenring's shrewd Elizabeth as his queen. Of course he does not wear the crown long. Not when "deformed, unfinished" Richard -- as crooked in mind as he is in body -- covets the prize.
Richard is every bit the villain. Yet in Kane's performance -- dazzling in its complexity, flawless in its execution -- there are fleeting moments that suggest something approaching humanity. One is evidenced in Richard's wooing of Lady Anne (fine work by Elizabeth Ledo), whose husband and father-in-law he murdered. Richard lies prostrate before her, daring her to kill him. Yet, she accepts his marriage proposal. After she departs, we expect Shakespeare's most accomplished "actor" to drop his mask and revert to his true self. In Kane's expression, however, we see disbelief, shock and what might be Richard's faint hope that he could be loved. It is a compelling moment.
There are others, but Kane's is the unforgettable performance, suffused with pain, ambition and murderous intent. Moments before the show's dinner break, his Richard sets the table for "Civil Strife's" conclusion, ruminating on how he will "catch the English crown."
Later, having done so, he howls, "I am myself alone." And the banquet is served.
"Tug of War: Civil Strife"★ ★ ★ ★
Location: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave., Chicago, (312) 595-5600 or chicagoshakes.com
Showtimes: 4 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m. Sunday; through Oct. 9; also 5 p.m. Oct. 6 and 7
Running time: About six hours, including intermission and dinner break
Tickets: $100; boxed meal $13, snack pack $8 additional
Parking: $16.80 with validation in the Navy Pier garage
Rating: For teens and older, includes violence and some sexual content