By Colin Douglas
Artistic Director Barbara Gaines deserves so much respect and admiration for Tug of War: Foreign Fire, her ambitious, creative and carefully crafted adaptation and melding of Shakespeare’s history plays. And what’s even more impressive is this is just the beginning of a work in progress.
As the centerpiece of the world renowned theater’s Shakespeare 400 Chicago, a celebration of the Bard’s 400th anniversary, Gaines has created two epic-length productions, each of which present the best moments from six of Shakespeare’s historical plays and fashions them into one impressive saga. This first installment, a six-hour production entitled Foreign Fire, condenses and combines the main plot points and characters from Shakespeare’s Edward III, Henry V and Henry VI, Part 1. Presented this Spring in a limited engagement of only 18 performances, the saga will continue this Fall with Civil Strife, a distillation of Henry VI, Parts 2 and 3, and Richard III. And the news is good: Gaines has accomplished the impossible in a breathtaking production that will educate, enlighten and entertain like very few other productions of its kind.
To recite in detail the stories encompassed by these histories would be ridiculous; they must be experienced firsthand. Suffice it to say, all the plays represented in this first installment deal with both the English monarchs and their military forces as these British kings send their troops off to wage war on foreign soil. Edward III battles with his bitter enemy, the French, in what would later be called The Hundred Years Wars and the War of the Roses. In Henry V we discover Prince Hal as a young party boy, maturing into a respected king and military leader over the French. The piece concludes with the inexperienced and innocent King Henry VI challenging the French Dauphin and his army, all mesmerized by a teen-aged Joan of Arc.
Not content to simply use Shakespeare’s verse and words, Gaines has included contemporary songs as well. She’s enlisted the talents of Matt Deitchman, as musical arranger and director, as well as Lindsay Jones, as composer of original music and her designer of sound. The production sports Deitchman, Jed Feder, Shanna Jones and Tahirah Whittington as soldiers and also playing onstage in a band while providing vocals. The songs are from Pink, Pete Townshend, Tim Buckley and others, which add another layer of power to this show.
The production is absolutely jaw-dropping in its scope and talent. A cast of 19 play more than 100 different roles, both male and female, with passion and honest conviction. This magnificent production features the majestic talents of such acting luminaries as Freddie Stevenson (a fantastic, powerful Edward III); versatile Steven Sutcliffe (so humorous as Lodowick, divisive as the Archbishop of Canterbury, quirky as the Dauphin and likable as a wet-behind-the-ears King Charles VI); John Tufts (as a magnetic, charismatic and stalwart King Henry V, as well as an excellent Duke of Lorraine and Earl of Suffolk); and Kevin Gudahl (playing a relentless King John II, a haughty Governor of Harfleur, a staunch Earl of Warwick, and others).
Other standouts include beautiful Karen Aldridge as a strong-willed Countess of Salisbury, a seductive Alice, as well as several lords and gentlemen; Barbara Robertson engaging as the King of Bohemia, the Duke of Exeter, the Duke of Anjou and the Countess of Auvergne; and the incomparable Heidi Kettenring as a very pregnant Queen Philippa, a feisty Captain Macmorris and a determined, dynamic Joan of Arc. Larry Yando, David Darlow, Alex Weisman, Michael Aaron Lindner, Dominique Worsley, Daniel Kyri, Neil Friedman and James Newcomb all add their respective talent and ability to this wonderful production, morphing into new characters at a moment’s notice.
Scott Davis’ scenic design is a scaffold-like affair that stretches high above the stage, allowing the ghosts of the departed monarchs a birds eye view of how their legacy has been carried out. It includes a boulder-pocked moat around the thrust stage and utilizes the aisles and balconies, in which the actors appear and exit. This opens up the courts and battlefields to almost include the audience. Beautifully lit, Anthony Pearson’s lighting design heightens the drama with each and every scene. Susan E. Mickey’s costumes are simple, yet so effective. Dressing her cast in fatigues, accented by period-suggestive pieces, the English are recognized by their red accents while the French sport accessories of deep blue. Mickey’s paper crowns are a wonderful touch. Melissa Veal completes the period look with her excellent and appropriate wig and makeup designs.
This monumental creation is at once an astounding artistic, literary and dramatic achievement. Gaines has seamlessly stitched together three of Shakespeare’s histories (with the second installment to come in the Fall) to create one epic story that says so much about the motivation toward and the effects of war. While she focuses on the kings and queens, she devotes much of her excellent adaptation on the way the soldiers and the commoners are affected. Supported by a brilliant technical team, including Yando’s excellent verse coaching, Harrison McEldowney’s beautiful direction in movement and Matt Hawkins’ superb fight choreography, as well as a world class cast of talented actors, this is THE production to catch before it sails away from Navy Pier.
“Tug of War: Foreign Fire” is presented through June 12 by Chicago Shakespeare Theater in the Courtyard Theater venue on Navy Pier. Tickets are available in person at the CST box office, by phone at (312) 595-5600 or online here. Additional reviews by Colin may be read at theatreinchicago.com.