Song montage of “Once I Was a Soldier” by Tim Buckley and Larry Beckett. Photo by Liz Lauren.
From the get-go in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s limited run, six-hour marathon mash-up Tug of War: Foreign Fire, Pink Floyd’s anti-war anthem “Us and Them” was running through my head: “Forward, he cried, from the rear, and the front rank died / The generals sat, and the lines on the map, moved from side to side.” And move they do, back and forth between England (Team Red) and France (Team Blue).
Sure enough, the live, on-stage band (helmed by Shanna Jones’ rocking voice and bass playing) eventually included that excerpt, as well as interstitial snippets from the other Pink (Alecia Moore), alongside several by Tim Buckley, plus Leonard Cohen, Nina Simone, Bach, Mahler, and the American classic, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”
While successfully driving transitions on Scott Davis’s sparse scaffolding and rubber tire set (the forever fought-for throne is a tire swing), the songs were energetic and well-performed, but too on-the-nose, in a production that obviously asks “war: what is it good for? Absolutely nothing, say it again” (and again).
The dramatic triptych (with two intermissions and one dinner break) starts with Edward III, to which scholars recently attributed partial authorship to William Shakespeare. The King (Brit actor/musician Eddie Stevenson, looking and acting like a proto-Anthony Weiner) is the font, the “author of the blood,” of the York and Lancaster lines, as well as the War of the Roses and the Hundred Years War (and this production covers about 100 years of history; a binge-watch of Holinshed’s Chronicles, with Civil Strife, parts 2 and 3 of Henry VI and Richard III following at CST this September and October).
David Darlow, Larry Yando, Freddie Stevenson, James Newcomb and Dominique Worsley. Photo by Liz Lauren.
Edward wages war only when he’s not macking on the married Countess of Salisbury (Karen Aldridge). He had rather her “more chased that chaste” but she prefers to “not be an actor in his graceless lust”–or trash talking King David of Scotland (Neil Friedman, Team Green Tartan).
The on-stage arguments for diplomacy over bloodshed still hold up (in addition to being peppered throughout the program like a Ken Burns documentary) including British Queen Philippa’s (Heidi Kettenring) plea for forbearance with the French to limit casualites: “As thou intendest to be King of France / So let her people live to call thee king.”
The ensemble of 19, clad in neutral underpinnings, a Gray Man Group wearing an array of Sendakian Where the Wild Things Are soft crowns (costumes by Susan E. Mickey, wigs and make-up by Melissa Veal), plays over 100 characters, and tackles Henry V next (and wipe blue lines on their foreheads to indicate when they have died).
The Archbishop of Canterbury’s (Steven Sutcliffe) endless Salic law speech (thrones can’t be inherited through female lineage) about why Henry can go for the French crown (although the Gaulois argue he can’t, just like his great-grandfather, the just-explored Edward III) remains intact including its conclusion that it’s “as clear as is the summer’s sun.”
A gift of tennis balls from the French dauphin (also Sutcliffe) pisses off Henry V (John Tufts) enough to want to turn them into “gun-stones” so he and his British, Irish, Scottish and Welsh soldiers, in the persons of captains Gower, Macmorris, Jamy and Fluellen, go “once more unto the breach” at Harfleur.
French envoy Montjoy (James Newcomb) begs for mercy from the “disgrace we have digested.” After the English triumph on St. Crispin’s Day, the carnage is settled and done.
Nope, not yet.
Karen Aldridge as Margaret of Anjou. Photo by Liz Lauren.
Henry VI, Part 1, is the first part of that trilogy, but probably written after parts 2 and 3, and the opener of the War of the Roses tetralogy (and plays fast and loose with historical facts). The child-king (Sutcliffe again) is manipulated by protector Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester (Michael Aaron Lindner), and the Bishop of Winchester Henry Beaufort (David Darlow).
But France’s former “dolphin,” now King Charles VII (Stevenson), kicks English ass at Orleans with the help of a certain Joan la Pucelle, famous for her nom de plume d’Arc (Kettenring).
By this time, everyone’s exhausted by the lines moving from Calais to Dover and back again over the English Channel. Buckley’s lyrics intone that “everywhere there’s rain my love / Everywhere there’s fear.”
The project is ambitious, but bogged down in that soggy mire. O for a muse (and infusion) of fire indeed.
Tug of War: Foreign Fire runs through June 12 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave. For tix and info, check online or call 312-595-5600.