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Tug of War: Foreign Fire is a grueling six-hour Shakespeare marathon

Adapter/director Barbara Gaines didn't need to combine three plays to get her message across about the deja vu of war.

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Let’s get one thing straight: It’s not the long sit I mind. One of my favorite sitting experiences ever was the English Shakespeare Company’s Wars of the Roses heptalogy, which played the International Theatre Festival of Chicago (what an idea, huh?) and literally took days to watch. By comparison, the six-hour running time of Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Tug of War: Foreign Fire should be an easy stretch to handle.

But it’s not. It’s hard. Really hard.

Which is a little odd. After all, Tug of War covers much of the same territory as The Wars of the Roses, using some of the same scripts drawn from among Shakespeare’s history plays. But where the ESC show accrued complexity and power over the course of its marathon span—culminating in a single, magnificent scene that summarized, perfected, and conferred a terrible beauty on all that had gone before—Tug of War basically repeats the same handful of ideas and motifs over and over again. Noble as it is, the sentiment that organized bloodshed is a bad thing doesn’t constitute a dramatic strategy—even if you use a punky rock band to help you express it. I stumbled away from the production feeling that adapter/director Barbara Gaines didn’t need to combine three plays to get her message across. She could’ve achieved everything she seems to have had in mind much more satisfyingly with one.

Part of the problem has to do with the particular three plays Gaines has chosen to combine. She starts with Edward III, a Shakespeare play you may never have heard of because it wasn’t included in the First Folio and generations of scholars have argued that it’s too awkward to be Shakespeare’s in any case. (The latest thought is that he and Thomas Kyd each contributed bits to it.)

I can understand why Gaines might be attracted to Edward III, aside from the coolness factor of its obscurity: The tale of an English king’s 1346 campaign to assert his sovereignty over France, it takes us back to the beginnings of the grotesque slog known as the Hundred Years War.

The choice has big drawbacks, though, a glaring one being that all those generations of scholars were right: Edward IIIis awkward as hell, with a Measure for Measure-esque problem play stuck in it like an embryo that didn’t quite take, having to do with Edward’s unholy lust for a certain Countess of Salisbury. In the context of a war epic, Edward’s obsession with the countess is a distraction that comes early enough in the proceedings to throw the focus out of whack.

Worse still, Edward III is followed by Henry V, the tale of an English king’s 1415 campaign to assert his sovereignty over France. I.e.: same play, different Plantagenet. Henry V is much the better piece of work, and repetition at least theoretically helps Gaines advance her point about the deja vu of war—but those considerations don’t make it any more enlightening or less tedious to see Henry wondering at the miracle of his victory in the face of tremendous odds after Edward did exactly the same thing a couple hours earlier.

Gaines’s trilogy ends with Henry VI, Part I, the tale (you guessed it) of an English king’s 1429 campaign to assert his sovereignty over France. The repetition isn’t quite so onerous this time around, partly because the dynamic is different, Henry VI being a well-meaning (and in Steven Sutcliffe’s performance, somewhat hippie-ish) kid whose lack of political and martial acumen leads to a power vacuum filled by others. Plus, Joan of Arc turns up, allowing for a glimpse into the English attitude toward her a mere 160 years after her own campaign to assert French sovereignty over France.

Whatever advantage these variations might yield is canceled out by Gaines’s tiresome recycling of a few signature tropes: the band’s rocked-up renditions of anti-war songs like Richie Havens’s “Handsome Johnny,” the cast’s earnestly balladic versions of pretentious ditties like Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them” (which earned titters during the opening day performance), a ritual whereby the dead are identified by some kind of greasy-looking substance wiped across their foreheads, the use of tire swings and paper crowns to suggest the childishness of nationalism, a rigorously executed color scheme in which the French are blue and the English red.

Interestingly, Gaines is able to use these elements to good advantage now and then, turning the finales of each section, for instance, into sometimes stirring, sometimes haunting moments that make you feel like there’s still hope. But when you come back from intermission, the same reductive template kicks in again. Gaines is so intent on putting over the message of Tug of War that she makes a dull chore of sitting through it. v

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