‘Tug of War: Civil Strife’ Review — God Save the Kingdom from Self-Destruction

Heidi Kettenring & Timothy Edward Kane

With “Tug of War: Civil Strife,” artistic director Barbara Gaines has conjured up a must-see production at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. It is also a must-sit, because it involves a six-hour commitment — double that for those who hunkered down for last spring’s “Tug of War: Foreign Fire.” Despite the long sit, paying attention won’t be a problem, given the riveting action on stage.


In “Civil Strife” Gaines has stitched together three of William Shakespeare’s history plays: “Henry VI, Parts 2 and 3,” and “Richard III.” This Shakespearean binge watching makes lots of sense. For one thing, the cast of characters comes essentially from one big, unhappy family: the Plantagenets.


Karen Aldridge as a grieving Queen Margaret

“They hate and cherish each other for reasons that have an enormous amount to do with the personal,” Gaines notes in the program. “Jockeying for power is what happens at every family dinner table — except that the power struggles at the dinner tables of these dysfunctional families can tear apart entire nations in their wake.”


Seeing the plays together also underlines Gaines’ anti-war message. “We will see the fall towards war, the collapse of moral integrity into war, and the striving for peace, again and again and again,” says Gaines, who adapted and directs the play cycle. “And one will wonder, Why don’t we learn from our history?”


Karen Aldridge & Steven Sutcliffe

That Shakespeare chose to write these histories near the beginning of his career — from ages 27 to 29 — seems all the more remarkable. Shakespeare’s audiences may have thought of these characters as familiar — they knew them from history — but the Bard took his audiences into territory where none had ventured, into the royal bedchambers, the war rooms, the Tower of London, even inside the mind of Richard III as he cooks up a birther plot against his own nephews.


Speaking of birthers, Trump makes an appearance in “Civil Strife” in the guise of Jack Cade (Kevin Gudahl), the leader of a 1450 popular revolt against Henry VI, replete with sinuous blond wig (transformative wigs and makeup design by Melissa Veal).


Trump-like characters seem to be finding their way into many current productions, guaranteed for a laugh, but in the case of “Civil Strife” the parallels run deeper. Cade, whose mother was a Plantagenet, promises impossibly cheap bread for the masses and spurs the famous line, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”


Timothy Edward Kane as Richard III

Advancing Gaines’ vision is an ensemble of actors who excel in their multiple roles, with 18 actors and band members bringing 100 characters to life. Timothy Edward Kane stands out even among his talented colleagues for his portrayal of Richard III, imbuing the role with a physicality that is both frightening and vulnerable. Steven Sutcliffe is moving as Henry VI — and later bestows appropriate gravitas as the Duchess of York.


Heidi Kettenring as a deposed Queen Elizabeth


Karen Aldridge shines in the role of Queen Margaret, the French import whose marriage to Henry VI comes with a reverse dowry, ceding the French territories hard won by his father, Henry V. Heidi Kettenring exudes sensibility and sensuality as Elizabeth Woodville, wooed and forcefully won by Richard’s brother, King Edward IV (Michael Aaron Lindner). Larry Yando is formidable as the Duke of York, and Elizabeth Ledo steals the scene whether she is playing the 11-year-old Edward of Westminster, heir to the throne, or Lady Anne, widow of Edward of Westminster and later coerced into marriage with Richard III.


Larry Yando & Timothy Edward Kane


Despite the complexities of character and plot, the production is easy to follow, strongly pulled together through music and design. Sound designer and composer Lindsay Jones integrates evocative songs like Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” into the action.The steampunk sensibility of the costume (Susan E. Mickey) and set design (Scott Davis) bring Gaines’ vision to light. And the golden tire swing that serves as the throne of England could not be a more apt metaphor. Everyone seems to want to have a go at the plaything, but it proves to be an unstable toy.


Tug of War: Civil Strife — Henry VI, Parts 2 & 3 and Richard III

Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave., Chicago

Through Oct. 9, 2016

Tickets $100 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater or (312) 595-5600

The 6-hour running time includes 2 15-minute intermissions and a 45-minute eating break.


Photos: Liz Lauren

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