CHICAGO—Barbara Gaines concludes her marathon production of Shakespeare’s War of the Roses with Tug of War: Civil Strife, and this time, the tug comes not from without but from within. The initially stable if timid reign of Henry VI (Steven Sutcliffe) faces a challenge from the House of York, but York is a house divided, and as soon as the family seizes the crown, Richard of Gloucester (Timothy Edward Kane) begins plotting the destruction of his older brothers, Edward (Michael Aaron Lindner) and Clarence (John Tufts).
There are obvious benefits to these massive stagings, as we get to see Shakespeare’s cyclical view of the British monarchy: both Henry VI and Edward IV suffer from unwise weddings, both are surrounded by men who play ping-pong with their loyalties, and both spend more time fending off usurpers than ruling their nation.
We are also given the opportunity to watch long-term character transformations. When Margaret (Karen Aldridge) first appears in Civil Strife, she is the Lancaster answer to Richard’s “Machiavel,” lounging in bed with her lover Suffolk (Mr. Tufts) and whispering into the ear of the king. Several beheadings later, she is a rudderless Cassandra; her hair dotted with detritus, she bellows out unheard prophecies like a street preacher. Richard, too, makes his first appearance in the Henry VI plays—Laurence Olivier even borrowed a speech from Part 3 for his film adaptation of Richard III—and it useful to see how long “misshapen Dick” waits in the wings before finally lurching toward center stage to announce his determination “to prove a villain.”
Richard has inspired a variety of interpretations, and it is always a treat to see a strong actor mount the role: Kevin Spacey played him like Groucho Marx, Mark Rylance like a petulant child. Mr. Kane’s Richard channels a Disney movie villain; leering like a hyena, he is unable to stand still and is constantly wobbling, as if his regicidal energy never wanes. Mr. Sutcliffe is also a fine Henry: pale, blond, and slight, we have little difficulty believing him when he fantasies about a private life as a “homely swain” instead of drowning in the “mighty sea” of war.
Granted, this second half of the War of the Roses—written before Henry IV and V—is not Shakespeare’s strongest work. But Ms. Gaines infuses her production with indefatigable force, and the show hardly feels its near-six-hour runtime. She even unearths interesting parallels to our own civil strife, casting Jack Cade (Kevin Gudahl) as a gleeful Donald Trump. In another context, this could have played as a cheap attempt at topicality, but Cade’s populist, anti-intellectual rebellion does indeed bear clear parallels to our own political anarchist.
I appreciated, too, Ms. Gaines’ ability to find subtlety amidst all the outlandishness. There is a beautiful scene, for instance, when Sir William Catesby (Mr. Gudahl) silently informs Richard of the death of Anne (Elizabeth Ledo) by presenting her wedding ring on the end of his knife. Paired with the melodrama of the rest of the play, these quiet moments prove doubly effective.
Ultimately, Tug of War is a Bardolator’s no-brainer: Henry VI is rarely produced, and when it is, it is inevitable truncated and thus stripped of its scope. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but I’ll watch these blockbuster shows any chance I can get.