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Jay Whittaker in Rose Rage
(Photo © Michael Brosilow)
Usually, war is only figurative butchery, but director Edward Hall has decided to get literal about it. In approaching William Shakespeare's Henry VI trilogy, Hall and co-adapter Roger Warren have trimmed away the figurative fat of the Bard's dialogue, and the helmer has also placed the bloody histories in an Edwardian abattoir -- an environ that set and costume designer Michael Pavelka equips with chain-link lockers and metal catwalks. The 12 actors Hall deploys in what he calls Rose Rage initially amble into sight wearing white butcher's aprons and honing knives and cleavers. The whooshing sounds they make are nicely ominous.

Although victim after victim is snuffed over the course of the production, no actual contact is depicted between actors. Instead, butchers go to a block and attack a slab of meat; severed slices fly every which way, even onto audience members' laps, or are dropped into plastic bags and hung on hooks. (Reportedly, 20 pounds of entrails that look like gelatinous liver are chopped in the course of a week's worth of performances.) When these rapacious stage butchers aren't assaulting fresh animal parts, they split cabbages as if separating aristocrats from their heads, thereby giving new meaning to the old phrase about "cabbages and kings."

Hall's central metaphor, which he presents in many eye-popping variations, is the most brilliant of his directorial ideas; but it's not the only macabre delight he lavishes on his revitalization of the three earliest plays attributed to Shakespeare yet often thought to have been collaborations. At the time considered the most cogent histories written in an England hungering to understand its past, nowadays the dramas aren't normally regarded as anything like top-flight Shakespeare. Rather, they're left to gather dust while the ensuing tragedies and comedies are celebrated.

But when someone like Edward Hall comes along with a bundle of astonishing theatrical notions, he demonstrates that these plays remain, ahem, meaty. The bad news for the prospective ticket buyer could be that the running time of Rose Rage is five and a half hours, including a dinner break and two intermissions. The decidedly good news is the time goes by in what seems like the flash of a blade. Although all the meat-mincing eventually reaches a saturation point, that's a negligible drawback in a production that serves as substantiating evidence for the argument that there are no bad Shakespeare plays, only unimaginative directors.

Rose Rage -- a spin on the phrase "road rage," about which the Brits know plenty -- concentrates on the fight for the English throne engaged in by the white-rose Yorks and the red-rose Lancasters from 1455 to 1485. (Deleted from the Hall-Warren treatment is the French history that Shakespeare covers, including Joan of Arc's campaign on behalf of the Dauphin -- or "Dolphin," as he was known in London streets.) No call here, though, for a genealogy lesson; it would only confuse matters. Good enough to say that when the underage Henry VI succeeded his galvanizing dad, Henry V, a dozen others licked their chops in the belief that they were worthier of the unsteady crown. Among them were the Lancasters, including Henry's dominatrix bride, Margaret of Anjou, and Richard York, father to Edward, Clarence and Richard. For 30 years, these conscience-free aspirants vowed to be loyal to one another while scheming to be anything but. At least, that's how Shakespeare saw it, culling source material from historians Raphael Holinshed and Edward Halle.

Sketching in the characters' convoluted and self-serving maneuvers, Shakespeare didn't display his best writing. (Or perhaps he was still, to continue the knife chat, honing his skills.) Rather, he kept the betrayals and double-crosses coming as if anticipating Jacobean revenge tragedy, still a few decades off. By the end of The Third Part of Henry VI, he was getting up to speed. In a stunning scene on the battlefield, the abandoned Henry contemplates what the simple life might be and also watches a son kill his father and a father murder his son. The symmetry, enhanced here by Ben Ormerod's blood-red lighting, is expert dramaturgy. Not long after that, the Duke of Gloucester -- eventually to become Richard III -- arrives to spew a speech that the author later tweaked into Richard III's curtain-raiser.

Hall, whose last production in New York was his own Propeller Company's Midsummer Night's Dream at BAM, trots out an ensemble irrepressibly motivated by his vision. It's one thing to watch actors perform a piece well; it's an even greater treat when they clearly love what they're doing. The men of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater throw themselves broadly and sometimes even subtly into their activities, not least the knife and cleaver wielding and the by-the-minute death throes. Standouts in the polished troupe are Richard W. Clothier as the Earl of Suffolk, Sean Fortunato as loyal Duke Humphrey, Jay Whittaker as rodent-like Gloucester, Scott Parkinson as conniving Queen Margaret, and Bruce A. Young as bull-headed Richard Plantagenet Duke of York. As Henry, Carman Lacivita meets all challenges except the lambent later scenes.

One reason to revive any play is to show its relevance to current events. Rose Rage, with parties stopping at nothing to retain or achieve power, feels uncomfortably pertinent. That includes Shakespeare's reference to a "feminine peace." Doesn't the phrase call to mind Dick Cheney impugning John Kerry and Arnold Schwarzenegger mocking "girlie men?"

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