By Colin Douglas
Just four months ago, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, as part of its yearlong Shakespeare 400 Celebration, produced a groundbreaking, monumental six-hour production that fused together the best parts of the Bard’s “Edward III,” “Henry V” and “Henry VI, Part 1.” In this second installment, which feels much like the current trend of binge-watching a favorite TV series, we’re treated to a mashup of “Henry VI, Parts 2 and 3” and “Richard III.” It’s subtitle, “Civil Strife,” refers to the fact that the conflicts in these three plays are all domestic and set in England. This is another action-packed, six-hour production that makes Shakespeare’s histories easily accessible and feel as contemporary as today’s headlines. The battle for the crown has never felt so immediate and realistic.
Barbara Gaines, CST’s multitalented artistic director, deserves her own crown for adapting this beautifully crafted script and directing such a magnificent, epic production. And, as in all things of beauty, it’s taken a village to bring this massive story to life. Ms. Gaines has once more collaborated with Lindsay Jones, who not only designed the production’s thundering sound design and original score, but has again worked with musical director and arranger Matt Deitchman to intersperse the War of the Roses with contemporary pop, rock and folk tunes. They’re sung live onstage, both by talented band members Deitchman, Alison Chesley, Jed Feder and Shanna Jones, as well as by the brilliant 18-member cast, almost giving this event the look and sound of a rock opera.
The technical support for this show is unbelievably profuse and profound. Scott Davis’ scenic design, appropriately unique to this production, is dominated by a descending wall of white, translucent screens that remain throughout. As the slaughter of countless kings, princes, dukes and foot soldiers occur, the pristine panels become drenched with torrents of blood cascading from above. Once again we have the golden tire swing that’s periodically lowered to center stage, representing each monarch’s seat of power, and Davis’ design again uses the aisles and the moat that surrounds the thrust stage. Aaron Spivey’s lighting design is as powerfully emotional as the textual demands and Mike Tutaj has created the best in projection design. Susan E. Mickey and Melissa Veal valiantly worked their individual magic designing costumes and wigs that effectively redefine each character. Matt Hawkins has contributed a very realistic palette of fight choreography, while Harrison McEldowney has incorporated the necessary stylized movement.
As in the first part of this Shakespearean saga, the stories told in these three plays are the stuff of history. They can’t be told about; they must be experienced firsthand to be fully appreciated. Suffice it to say the machinations of tyrants and enemies drive the plot. We begin with King Henry VI, a kinder, gentler, fairer monarch than England had previously known. His Queen Margaret, often the power behind the throne, provides the realistic vision of who’s friend and who’s foe. There’s the conniving Duke of York, Richard Plantagenet, and his sons Edward IV, Rutland, Clarence and Richard III, who will soon become the merciless, amoral hunchbacked monarch everyone knows. They all harbor an unquenchable thirst for the throne. We’re treated to Elizabeth Grey, young Edward, Prince of Wales, King Louis XI of France, Lord Hastings, the Mayor of London and so many others.
Once again this versatile ensemble proves extraordinary, thanks to Bob Mason’s wise casting. Timothy Edward Kane dominates the evening as a vile, contemptible Richard III, first introduced as a young man, and later seen for the megalomaniac he is to become. Kane is captivating in every scene, not the least of which is his ruthless seduction of Lady Anne, played by the brilliantly talented Elizabeth Ledo. She’s also terrific playing men, as the Duke of Somerset and Edward of Westminster, Henry VI and Queen Margaret’s young son and heir to the throne. King Henry is played with subtle brilliance and honesty by Steven Sutcliffe, and lovely Karen Aldridge rules the stage with dignity, passion and fury as Queen Margaret.
Larry Yando, always a dominant presence in anything he undertakes, makes use of his beautiful, resonant voice as Richard Plantagenent, the evil, manipulative Duke of York. Beautiful Heidi Kettenring has a recurring role as Peter’s sad young wife, a foot soldier (played with feeling by Derrick Trumbly) going off to war in scenes that bookend this play. She’s especially regal and transcendent as Queen Elizabeth, as well. David Darlow is commanding in multiple roles, playing the Cardinal of Winchester, Lord Clifford, the Earl of Oxford, King Louis XI, the Mayor of London and others. The always superb Kevin Gudhal is very funny as a Donald Trump-inspired Jack Cade. He equally impresses as the Earl of Warwick and Sir William Catesby. Handsome John Tufts dazzles as the Duke of Suffolk, George, Duke of Clarence and Sir Richard Ratcliffe. The outstanding Michael Aaron Lindner, who again proves he can play anyone and anything, is peerless as Lord Protector Humphrey and King Edward IV. James Newcomb impresses as both the Dukes of Buckingham and Exeter, while young Daniel Kyri is brilliant and memorable in such diverse roles as Michael, the Duke of Rutland, Vernon, young Edward Prince of Wales, Lord Grey and King Henry VII.
This is another epic production that is monumental in scope and style. It sparkles and stirs the emotions while delivering a somewhat condensed picture of British history. Watching these three plays woven together in such a seamless manner, we gain the knowledge and impact that history should provide, while coming to understand a little more about the figures who brought these bellicose events to light. The constant struggle for power and the quest for the crown has never been more exciting, understandable and mesmerizing.
Chicago Shakespeare Company presents “Tug of War: Civil Strife” through October 9 in the Courtyard Theater venue on Navy Pier. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Liz Lauren.