Playwright: Alan Bennett. At: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Chicago. Phone: 312-595-5600; $44-$75. Runs through: June 12
Die-hard Shakespeare fans might be dubious about Chicago Shakespeare Theater producing a non-Bard play like Alan Bennett's 1991 drama The Madness of George III.
However, once the play's many power-grab machinations start playing out as the monarch becomes ill, it becomes quite easy to compare and contrast Bennett's enjoyable drama with history plays by the theater's beloved title playwright.
Nowadays we think that King George III's madness was caused due to the blood disease porphyria (reports of the monarch's bluish-purple urine is a major clue). But back in the late 1780s, the doctors truly had no idea what the king was suffering from (as Bennett humorously depicts among George III's frequently inept doctors).
Bennett's Madness of King George amuses with its frequent depictions of a battling British parliamenteasily mirroring the sparring and jockeying of America's government today. And the play stands out especially for the powerhouse acting challenge faced by any actor assuming the title role.
Director Penny Metropulos has entrusted George III to Broadway veteran Harry Groener (Crazy for You, Cats), who uses his years as a song-and-dance man to bring a vibrant physicality to monarchfrom initial stiff-limbed severity to the miserable staggering and unsteadiness as George III becomes mentally unhinged. It's a technically brilliant and heart-wrenching performance.
Metropulos also collaborates with her design team (particularly costumer Susan E. Mickey) to create a historically lavish and lovely-to-look-at production. The large, talented and character-filled cast also gives an added element of occasion to the show (since many regional theatres often avoid large ensembles like the one depicted here).
Metropulos' extensive research into the period is apparent, including the casting of a very regal Ora Jones who more than holds her own as the understanding and domestic Queen Caroline (it has long been rumored that the queen had some distant African ancestry, so the fine casting of Jones should not be written off as a politically correct gesture).
Although The Madness of George III regularly impresses, Bennett's play does have its longueurs now and then (some explanatory scenes seem to trail on longer than necessary). And Bennett is a tad too cheeky to include a scene of the "mad" monarch acting out a scene from Shakespeare's drama about another mentally unstable ruler, King Lear. It's a very effecting moment, but one more out of calculation and conjecture on Bennett's part than something truly genuine.
Although Bennett's best-known play nowadays is probably his award-winning The History Boys, it's still fun to look back on Bennett's brilliance with this earlier epic work involving government power grappling and a very dysfunctional British royal family. But what ultimately surprises you about the Madness of George III is how very timely it all is.