In the sheer monumentality of its vision, and the stark brilliance of its execution, director Barbara Gaines’ Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of “Tug of War: Civil Strife” — a six-hour pairing of two rarely produced plays (“Henry VI, Parts 2 & 3),” with the widely familiar “Richard III” — has few rivals. And viewed alongside last spring’s “Foreign Fire,” Gaines’ first installment in this epic examination of the nature of leadership, political chicanery and the seemingly endless bloody quest for the English throne, it would be difficult to think of a more vivid way to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, or to demonstrate the enduring accuracy of the Bard’s view of human nature, and the mad persistence of war.
Playing scores of characters is a stellar cast of 18, among whom are many veteran musical theater performers, as well as a fearsome band of four onstage singer/musicians who lead volcanic, ideally re-invented renditions of the songs of Leonard Cohen, Linda Perry, Nina Simone, Tim Buckley and Larry Beckett, Pete Townshend, James Shelton and others, with exceptional musical direction by arranger-performer Matt Deitchman and sound designer-composer-arranger Lindsay Jones.
‘TUG OF WAR: CIVIL STRIFE’ Highly recommended When: Through Oct. 9 Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand on Navy Pier Tickets: $100 (extra for box dinner) Info: (312) 595-5600; www.chicagoshakes.com Run time: Two parts are 6 hours, with two intermissions and one dinner break
But it is Gaines, the tiny but mighty force behind Chicago Shakespeare — who founded the theater 30 years ago, and has overseen its mighty artistic and physical growth ever since — who deserves the credit here. Her love affair with Shakespeare, and her undying belief in his plays’ ability to speak to us now, never wavers. And these two epics might well be her crowning achievement.
Gaines’ framing device is simple but potent. It all begins as a young soldier (the forceful Derrick Trumbly), is called off to war, and despite the pleas of his wife (Heidi Kettenring) to stay at home, he determinedly heads off. The epic’s altogether harrowing final scene (not to be divulged here) — could not be a more fitting summation of the hours of horror and stupidity just witnessed.
If “Foreign Fire” was largely about the countless wars between England and France for domination, territory and possession of “the throne,” “Civil Strife” picks up where they left off and chronicles the relentless back-and-forth between the House of Lancaster (and its symbol of the red rose) and the House of York (bearer of the white rose). In addition, by way of the two parts of “Henry VI” (which Gaines makes us believe should be far better known) it suggests that the rule of a weak but decent king with a naive peace-and-love mentality can be every bit as calamitous as rule by a psychotic despot (as in “Richard III”). The white wall behind Scott Davis’ heavily scaffolded set continually streams with blood (by way of Tolin FX’s special effects) — a chilling indication of the butchery and slaughter.
Without recounting the ceaseless series of ploys and counter-ploys at work here, suffice it to say that Henry VI (Steven Sutcliffe, slender, blonde and sad-eyed, is ideal), was dubbed King at the age of nine, and developed into a good man tasked with a position totally alien to his character. His first major mistake was to fall in love with and marry the commanding Margaret of Anjou (Karen Aldridge, ever the seductive powerhouse), in the process signing away the French territory won at such cost by his father, Henry V. Both his family, and his honorable Lord Protector, Humphrey (an admirable turn by Michael Aaron Lindner) suffer dearly for his impotence.
Henry’s weakness also unleashes great internal dissension and insurrection, setting off power grabs and civil wars, with the Duke of York (Larry Yando in sublimely vengeful and demonic form), triumphing initially, thanks partly to his clever use of the bombastic populist Jack Cade (Kevin Gudahl in a hilarious incarnation of Donald Trump) and others. By the end of “Henry VI, Part 3,” one of York’s sons, Edward (Lindner), has assumed the crown with help from his brothers, including Richard (Timothy Edward Kane in blistering, twisted form), the famously warped man who will stop at nothing to win the crown. And “Richard III” will, of course, chronicle his exponentially nightmarish orders, including the murder of innocent children (potential heirs), and the seduction of women whose lives he will destroy.
The women in these plays (dressed in Susan E. Mickey’s red and white gown festooned with roses) are vivid figures, but mostly instruments of dowry and inheritance — heir-makers whose offspring are forever vulnerable. The excellent Elizbeth Ledo is Lady Anne, bizarrely wooed by the man who killed both her father and husband. Kettenring searingly captures the savvy but powerless Queen Elizabeth, widow of King Edward. Aldridge returns as the eerily prophetic Queen Margaret, widow of Henry VI. And, as Richard III’s elderly mother, Sutcliffe (in the subtlest drag), hurls the most bitter curses against her hellish son.
Daniel Kyri nails the beautifully poetic wishes of the man who will be Henry VII (and perhaps an ideal mix of soldier and peacemaker), and there are fine performances throughout by David Darlow, Michael Milligan, James Newcomb and John Tufts, with thrilling vocal and instrumental work by Shanna Jones, Jed Feder, Alison Chesley and Deitchman.
As for the royal crown in the form of a giant gilded tire that hovers over this production as it did the last — well, what better way to take the air out of the relentless pursuit of power.