Playwright: William Shakespeare, adapted by Edward Hall and Roger Warren
At: Chicago Shakespeare Theatre
Phone: (312) 595-5600; $70
Runs through: Jan. 18, 2004
Shakespeare's Henry VI is a chronicle of ambition, intrigue and bloodshed. No sooner is the shy boy-king crowned than everybody starts to fight over him, forging alliances based on little more than casuistry, expedience and, like as not, with a couple of corpses as collateral. In the end, anyone with a shred of honor or honesty has been slain.
Among the reasons this play is rarely staged are A) it is actually THREE full-length plays, grouped under a single title, B) the snarl of split-second reversals makes it easy for audiences to lose track of the major players, and C) we become so inured to Dirty Deals that we don't give a damn who gets whacked. But director Edward Hall has learned a trick or two from HIS father—England's legendary Peter Hall—whittling down the text to a two-parter (with a snack break at half-time) and adopting a Central Visual Metaphor that commands our undiminished attention.
The arena for the dramatic action is a slaughterhouse, with greedy stratagems unfolding to the ubiquitous scrape of culinary utensils being sharpened by bloody-aproned men. A prisoner destined to lose his head is hooded in purple and led to the block, whereupon a red cabbage is smashed to bits with one sweep of the ax. (Even more graphic is the later business involving a cleaver-wielding chef and a tableful of organ meats.) And though actual blades never touch actual bodies, our imaginations make the connections between the literal and the symbolic butchery.
It's not ALL conceptual, of course. Of the actors, Carman Lacivita makes a pitiable Henry, Bruce A. Young dies bravely—and slowly—as the Duke of York, sire to Jay Whittaker's psycho-killer Richard. Joe Forbrich endows the ambivalent Warwick with dignity and renders Jack Cade's rap-style rallying speeches considerably less silly than hip-hop interludes usually come off in classical surroundings. But men playing women's roles in Shakespeare's time notwithstanding, Hall's decision to have Scott Parkinson play the ruthless Margaret of Anjou as a Drag Queen in full Norma Desmond/Frau Blücher mode injects an annoying burlesque note to an otherwise praiseworthy ensemble effort.