New York City Theater
Duke on 42nd St.
Thwack! Bam! Whump! This is Shakespeare? Yes, indeed and the Bard is all over the map.
Start with "Henry VI," all three parts, in a crystal clear, wry and daring five-and-a-half hour (with dinner break) presentation titled "Rose Rage." Beware: You have only one more week to see this Chicago Shakespeare Company presentation, something you will likely never see again in your lifetime in such a visceral production.
This is the real stuff - the intrigues, the rivalries, the anglings, the revenges and religious hypocrisy in a world where power is an aphrodisiac - all eerily mirroring our gory, uncertain times. Set in a slaughterhouse run by butchers in white smocks and gas masks, the production is no stunt but a slambang, though edited, version of these sometimes crude early plays.
True, Part I begins with bombastic language that doesn't sound at all like the Shakespeare we know, the humanist who created all those glorious characters. But the evening gains in scope, poetry and black humor as it rushes toward its bloody denouement.
The brilliant director and (with Roger Warren) co-adaptor Edward Hall takes his clue from the text, as in "Who finds the heifer dead and bleeding fresh/And sees fast by a butcher with an axe,/But will suspect 'twas he that made the slaughter?" In "Rose Rage," a cabbage is cut in twain to symbolize decapitation. A container of "blood" drips into a bucket to mimic throat-cutting, and cleavers strike pieces of meat to simulate eviscerated hearts and entrails. (Many in the audience opted for veggies at dinner.)
The action centers on the 15th century dynastic Wars of the Roses which pitted the House of Lancaster (red) against the House of York (white) for the English throne. England controlled most of France but Henry's marriage to the ambitious, domineering Margaret of Anjou weakened his hold on the rival country.
As if that's not trouble enough, Henry has to deal with the threat of dreaded civil war. The scenes with the rebel (here rapping), anti-intellectual Jack Cade are rendered with such gusto that the audience all but stands up and eggs him and his rabble on. (The scene also contains that surefire laugh-getter, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.")
Before the evening is done, Henry has been deposed and the dissolute House of York oozes into power. Director Hall slyly, hilariously ends with the beginning of the following play, "Richard III" (currently in a revival that stars Peter Dinklage).
If this vigorous all-male "Rose Rage" echoes today's horrors and frayed nerves, so be it. As one critic wrote, "Shakespeare is our contemporary."
-- David Rosenberg
Oct. 10, 2004