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Shakespeare history plays linked to evoke state of perpetual war

Freddie Stevenson (center) rallies the British troops to battle with (from left) David Darlow, Larry Yando, James Newcomb and Dominique Worsley in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of "Tug of War: Foreign Fire." (Photo: Liz Lauren)

A centerpiece of this year’s citywide celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s monumental, brilliantly interlocking six-hour, three-play history saga “Tug of War: Foreign Fire” is many things.

First and foremost, it is a fugue on the theme of “perpetual war” — that phenomenon of ongoing tension that can escalate at any moment, with catastrophic conflagrations erupting periodically, resulting in massive casualties and destruction that leave the seeming victor exhausted, but destined to fight the same battle over and over again for generations to come.

By seamlessly bookending Shakespeare’s widely known “Henry V” with the lesser-known “Edward III” and “Henry VI, Part I,” adapter-director Barbara Gaines has chronicled, in condensed form, the full lunacy and depressing inevitability of an enduring quest for domination between England and France, with an array of civil wars (with the Scots, and later among competing nobles in various alliances to the church) adding fuel to the fire. Along the way she also has illuminated the way fathers and sons attempt to compensate for each other’s failures; the way kings attempt to legitimize their claims to the throne; the way women are used as pawns to solidify those claims, and the way soldiers (whether aristocrats or commoners) prepare themselves to meet with death.

If all the bloodshed and chaos begin to feel like some maniacal and ultimately futile quest for eternal dominance, that is, to be sure, Gaines’ point. And seeing it unspool over the course of a good 100 years (from the mid 14th century into the mid 15th century), drives it home. The sick joke of it all is neatly encapsulated in one perfectly imagined set piece: a giant rubber tire, painted gold, that serves as both crown and throne.

The commanders of the French forces, played by Freddie Stevenson (center), Steven Sutcliffe (left) and Dominique Worsley, in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s “Tug of War: Foreign Fire.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)
The commanders of the French forces, played by Freddie Stevenson (center), Steven Sutcliffe (left) and Dominique Worsley, in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s “Tug of War: Foreign Fire.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)

‘TUG OF WAR – PART I: FOREIGN FIRE’

Highly recommended

When: Through June 12

Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand on Navy Pier

Tickets: $85 if Parts 1 and 2 (“Civil Strife” will be staged in the fall) are booked together; $100 for single part

Info: (312) 595-5600; www.chicagoshakes.com/tugofwar

Run time: 6 hours, with brief intermissions and a meal break. Boxed meals are separate and may be ordered in advance.

This is, to be sure, no ordinary slog through standard-issue Shakespeare. For her impeccably clear, fast-paced, handsomely staged production, Gaines has assembled a cast of 19 superb actors and musicians who transform themselves in countless ways over the course of the three plays. In several cases women (who have far fewer roles in the histories) play male characters without ever causing distraction. And throughout, the actors join their clarion voices with the onstage musicians in a surging score that features everything from such traditional American anthems as “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” and Frank Loesser’s “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” to riffs from Bach and Mahler.

With haunting arrangements (by music director and galvanic performer Matt Deitchman and sound designer Lindsay Jones), the score contains more contemporary music too: the Tim Buckley-Larry Beckett anti-war songs of the 1960s, “No One Can Find the War” and “Once I Was a Soldier,” and their sensual “Song to the Siren”; the beautiful “Lilac Wine,” and Leonard Cohen’s biting “There Is a War,” whose lyric, “Why don’t you come on back to the war, let’s all get even,” might well be the show’s defining line.

The three kings are young men, and of considerably different temperaments. Edward III (an aptly impulsive Freddie Stevenson) initially arrives on stage with his very pregnant wife, Queen Philippa (Heidi Kettenring). A man of emotional heat and rather rash decision-making, he is informed that he is the true heir of the French throne. So he opts for war, sending his son to claim his manhood on the French battlefield while he suppresses the rebellious Scots and, in the process, falls madly in lust for the Countess of Salisbury (the formidably seductive and canny Karen Aldridge). Somehow the English eke out a victory in France, and it is up to Philippa to plead with her husband to pardon the French and treat them humanely (a scene beautifully rendered by Kettenring), so that they will be more willing subjects.

By the time Henry V (the young and thoughtful John Tufts) arrives on the scene, the French have regained the kingdom they previously lost, and Henry, backed by the Church, is determined to reclaim it from the French, whose King (Larry Yando) is old and weak, and whose Dauphin (Steven Sutcliffe) is arrogant and off-putting. Despite being vastly outnumbered by the French, Henry, who heads to the battlefield (with Shakespeare’s poetic narration of the battle scenes beautifully rendered by Yando) and begins to fully understand the fear and horror of war, stirs his men to victory. But it comes at a staggering price. The upside is that he gets to woo and marry the feisty French princess, Katherine (Kettenring).

Henry V dies young and is followed on the throne by his infant son, who is surrounded by a slew of conniving power brokers. Henry VI (ideally played by Sutcliffe) is an ineffectual, effeminate fellow with what might be termed a “kumbayah” nature. And once again he is facing a reversal as the English squabbling has strengthened the French, whose king has welcomed the arrival of soldier/mystic Joan of Arc (Kettenring in powerhouse martial form). Although the French ultimately lose, a fragile truce signals that whole familiar history will soon repeat itself.

The company sings “Once I Was a Soldier” in “Tug of War: Foreign Fire.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)
The company sings “Once I Was a Soldier” in “Tug of War: Foreign Fire.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Although it is not possible here to single out all the many fine performances (Michael Aaron Lindner, Kevin Gudahl, James Newcomb, Neil Friedman and Daniel Kyri are standouts), suffice it to say that the ensemble work is superb. So is Scott Davis’ heavily scaffolded, machine-of-war set, Anthony Pearson’s magnificent lighting and Susan Mickey’s punkish costumes with their easily identifying red (English) and blue (French) scarves.

All in all, a massive work of immense artistry and passion that will be followed this fall by its sequel, “Civil Strife.”