Review: The Madness of George III (Chicago Shakespeare)

  
  

The real King Lear

  
  

King George III (Harry Groener) and the royal family greet their subjects in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's The Madness of George III. Photo by Liz Lauren.

  
Chicago Shakespeare Theater presents
   
The Madness of George III
   
Written by Alan Bennett
Directed by Penny Metropulos
at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier (map)
thru June 12  |  tickets: $44-$75  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Talk about life imitating art. Like the fictional King Lear of Shakespeare’s harshest imagination, in the late 18th century King George III of the troubled House of Hanover descended into madness, then briefly emerged from it as he realized that a king is mortal and that others have suffered as much as he. He too had vicious offspring: two sons – the fat and foolish Prince of Wales, later George IV, and the foppish Duke of York – were every bit as ungrateful as Goneril and Regan (and he had no Cordelia to redeem the curse). George was temporarily “cured” by a tough-love regimen: A monarch who had never been contradicted in his life was restrained by strait-jackets and strapped to a chair like a thief in a pillory. If not worse, the treatment was as vicious as the malady.

Harry Groener as the ailing King George III and Ora Jones as his devoted Queen Charlotte in Alan Bennett's The Madness of George III. Photo by Peter Bosy.If Lear’s story is tragic, George’s is pathetic, so great is the gulf between his real illness (porphiria, a medical and not a mental degenerative disease) and the neo-medieval physicians who think the solution is just a question of bloodletting, poultices, and a daily inspection of the chamberpot. It’s too easy to say that George was unhinged by the ingratitude of his American subjects in daring to revolt—or that his peace of mind was subverted by parliamentary plots hatched by his enemies the Whigs (under the unscrupulous Charles Fox). (The government’s Tories, under William Pitt, were not above exploiting the addlepated king as he forfeited control over almost all his functions and functionaries.) His was a classic case of hubris: The body’s conditional state betrayed the monarch’s absolute power.

Alan Bennett’s much-praised 1991 dramatization of this unpleasantness (made into Nicholas Hytner’s superb 1994 film with Nigel Hawthorne as the humbled king) recalls Thomas Hogarth’s most vicious caricatures: It conjures up a dysfunctional dynasty as fraught with friction as any family and a political circus in which Whigs and Tories behave just as badly as our bad boys do in 2011, not 1785.

Penny Metropulos’ all-engrossing staging is a marvel of perpetual motion. Its energy is coiled and concentrated in Tony-nominee Harry Groener’s piledriving performance in the dual title role (the madness as much as the king). In this awesome fall from grace we watch the symbol of the then-world’s greatest empire lose authority as he does his bowels, brain and locomotion. The well-named Groener makes us feel his pain in each particular (and Bennett is nothing if not graphic in his depiction of a body breaking down).

The king’s sole help comes from Ora Jones’ magnificent Queen Charlotte, George’s fearlessly loyal, unjustly neglected wife, his faithful equerries (Kevin Gudahl and Erik Hellman), and his principled and frustrated prime minister (Nathan Hosner). All do legion work above and beyond every theatrical expectation.

     
King George III (Harry Groener) celebrates his recovery with his devoted Queen Charlotte (Ora Jones) in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's The Madness of George III. Photo by Liz Lauren. King George III (Harry Groener, center) handles government affairs with Prime Minister William Pitt (Nathan Hosner, far left) as Fortnum (Mark D. Hines) awaits orders, in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's The Madness of George III. Photo by Liz Lauren.
King George III (Harry Groener) embraces his straitjacket as he struggles to regain control of his mind in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's The Madness of George III. Photo by Liz Lauren. Queen Charlotte (Ora Jones) warns her ailing husband, King George III (Harry Groener), of his government's impending plan to revoke his political powers, as Captain Fitzroy (Kevin Gudahl, center) and Captain Greville (Erik Hellman, left) look on, in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's The Madness of George III. Photo by Liz Lauren.

As devious as the disease that wracks the king, Richard Baird plays his heir with odious opportunism, matched by Alex Weisman as his corrupt and corpulent younger brother. David Lively’s Lord Chancellor is amusingly caught in the crossfire between both factions, while the four doctors (Brad Armacost, Patrick Clear, William Dick and James Newcomb) display a cornucopia of ignorance that Moliere would envy.

The near-three hours fly by as pell-mell conflicts ebb and seethe under William Bloodgood’s immense Palladian portico. Its most telling moment is when a recovering George experiences the only good treatment he received: He plays a dying King Lear, suddenly realizing that another man wrote about and an imaginary one felt his plight. That, of course, was to know how powerless you are when fate toys with you and your own body turns on you worse than any enemies could imagine. You feel like a voyeur as you watch this scatological and scandalous story unfold, but you can’t take your eyes away for an instant.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Suspecting a plot to dethrone him, King George III (Harry Groener) attacks his son, the Prince of Wales (Richard Baird), attended by Dr. Richard Warren (Patrick Clear, left), as Queen Charlotte (Ora Jones, right) rushes to quell him and the Duke of York (Alex Weisman) tumbles to escape the fray, in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's The Madness of George III. Photo by Liz Lauren.

All photos by Liz Lauren and Peter Bosy.

     

 

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REVIEW: Shadowlands (Provision Theater)

  
  

More isn’t more in C.S Lewis relationship drama

        
        

Susan Moniz and Brad Armacost in 'Shadowlands', now playing at Provision Theater.

  
Provision Theater presents
  
Shadowlands
  
Written by William Nicholson
Directed by
Tim Gregory
at
Provision Theater, 1001 W. Roosevelt (map)
thru March 20  |  tickets: $25-$28  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan E. Jakes

C.S Lewis had a flair for turning complex theological and philosophical ideas into digestible, entertaining narratives. He was a profoundly influential man with a distinct voice and a fascinating life. In Shadowlands, Provision Theater works with a rich subject with a compelling story. The creative team behind this bio-drama obviously has a fondness for the British author. What they could really use are some of his writing tricks.

William Nicholson’s script desperately needs editing. Heavy-handed, clunky, and overlong at two and a half hours, the text undercuts its own story with linear, tedious construction, and scattershot attention to dramatic build. Exposition is not the same as action, and Shadowlands relies mostly on characters standing around telling each other what’s happening to relate the plot.

Moments that play out theatrically are rare, but enlightening. On their tropical honeymoon, Joy teaches her husband to sit and bask in the sunlight. So far, we’d only seen the academic Lewis in authoritative formal wear in stuffy, drab English surroundings. Sprawled comfortably on a bench, Joy teaches him patiently, informing him that presence is a virtue without speaking a direct word about it. When he gets it, we see the tension release from his shoulders and the appreciative grin of realization. His wife is good to him, and without her, even a renowned intellectual like him would never have enjoyed this beautiful, divinely simple pleasure.

In that scene, Nicholson creates a thin-sliced moment of life–we understand why Lewis fell in love with Joy Gresham and what he’ll miss when she passes, all from a few sentences about the sun. Good theatrical scene work works as metaphor.

The rest, however, is so literal. Every key point of Lewis and Gresham’s relationship–letters, first meeting, introduction to friends, divorce, secret wedding, first bout with illness, public wedding, honeymoon, second bout with illness, death, grief–is played out or discussed at length. It’s one thing to be respectful with a narrative, but it’s another to champion reality over storytelling. Creative license is not a tool for the selfish, but the thoughtful. Refining a real-life story into fiction brings out a chosen element of its truth. Instead of highlighting or heightening aspects of the protagonists’ relationship, Nicholson and Director Tim Gregory jam in as much as they can, progressively devaluing the scenes as they pile more and more on the stage.

Substance needs style in order to move audiences. In Act I, while visiting Lewis abroad, after learning of her first husband’s affair, Gresham informs Lewis she is leaving back for America. He’s hurt. The curtain closes. A few moments later, it opens. She’s back and Lewis is surprised. How are we supposed to care about her return if we never had time to miss her to begin with?

Working with limited dramatic resources, the actors give remarkable performances. Brad Armacost reprises his role of the title character from Provision’s earlier C. S. Lewis Onstage. He’s lovable, thought-provoking, and a master of his language. He’s easily believable as the distinguished theologian. Susan Moniz (Gresham) is assertive, joyful, funny and extraverted.

(Some consideration: Friday night was only the second preview, after the final dress rehearsal and first performance were canceled due to the severe weather. The next few performances will likely clean up any tiny technical issues and tighten up the transitions, though again, the main culprit is textual, not performance-based)

Shadowlands’ respect for its material is admirable, but as C. S. Lewis taught us, so is imagination. Without it, no dedication to truth will ring as poignant.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

 

REVIEW: The Weir (Seanachai Theatre)

 

Irish Eeriness Done Right

 

from left, Valerie (Sarah Wellington), Jim (Jeff Christian), and Jack (Brad Armacost) have great craic in Seanachaí Theatre Company’s THE WEIR by Conor McPherson. Photo courtesy of Eileen Molony.

   
Seanachai Theatre Company presents
   
The Weir
   
Written by Conor McPherson
Directed by
Matt Miller
Irish American Heritage Center, 4626 N. Knox (map)
through October 3  |  tickets: $22-$26  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Considering the resumes of those involved, it’s surprising that Seanachai’s production of The Weir went unmentioned in many of those “fall previews” the theatre press is so fond of. First off, the play was penned by a young Conor McPherson, the Irishman who also wrote The Seafarer and Shining City. Both of those had hugely successful Chicago premiers at Steppenwolf and the Goodman, respectively. To  direct, Seanachai nabbed Matt Miller, the one behind the much-hyped Finbar (Kevin Theis, right) and Jack (Brad Armacost, left) have it out in Seanachaí Theatre Company’s THE WEIR by Conor McPherson. Photograph courtesy of Eileen Molony.Graceland (our review ★★★) at Profiles Theatre last year. And the small cast includes local stage stars like Sarah Wellington and Brad Armacost. Brad Smith, the youngest actor on-stage, even had a song featured on the “Up in the Air soundtrack. There’s so many accomplishments listed in each bio, I’m a little surprised the program didn’t explode.

What the lean, focused production made clear, however, is that Seanachai spent their time creating a terrific product instead of manufacturing buzz.

The talky play is a perfect fit for Gaelic-centric Seanachai and their ensemble of vibrant storytellers. That’s what the piece is, essentially—a couple rounds of storytelling, all relating brushes with the supernatural. The attractive, urbanite Valerie (Wellington) finds herself in a rural pub usually occupied by several lonely men. The locals attempt to impress her with regional folklore and their meetings with the spirits that inhabit the country alongside them. However, as the beer bottles and dirty glasses pile up, Valerie reveals the most personal and unnerving close encounter of them all.

The set-up might avail itself to some cheap, M. Night Shyamalan twist (“She’s really a ghost!”), but McPherson crafts a tale far richer, as well as much more disturbing. Miller and the cast don’t shock or frighten, but softly drill into the dark parts of the psyche.

Like most of McPherson’s other tales, the show boils down to a few characters sitting around and talking. Does anything actually happen? It’s a valid question. There are only a handful of entrances and exits, and the whole thing takes place in real time with no intermission. Fistful of monologues after fistful of monologues wears you down after awhile. However, when one goes a level deeper, they find that McPherson is fiercely concerned with his characters’ internal struggles and the small, everyday friendships that keep us all sane. The script might make a slow pace appealing to a lesser director, but that would be suicide. The performers here know to keep moving at a fast clip while choosing moments to open up the play so the audience stays hungry.

from left, Jack (Brad Armacost), Jim (Jeff Christian), and Finbar (Kevin Theis), try to curry favor with Valerie (Sarah Wellington) by sharing betting tips, in Seanachaí Theatre Company’s THE WEIR by Conor McPherson. Photograph courtesy of Eileen Molony.

The play opens with Brendan (Smith), the owner of the bar, and Jack (Armacost), his best customer. Armacost goads, blathers, and flirts with the hilarious disregard of an aging bachelor. He also manages to drag the audience along the hills and valleys of loneliness and redemption. Smith retains an aloofness that occasionally borders on being uninteresting, but he stays plugged in with the rest of the cast over the duration, playing along with the more eccentric patrons of his bar. Jeff Christian exudes all sorts of awkward charm as the tightlipped Jim, a man that can get closer to horseracing statistics than other people. Kevin Theis’s Finbar, the married man who takes it upon himself to show Valerie around town, rotates between sliminess and sincerity. Even though the character is obviously a tool, Theis musters up enough charm to make sure that the audience can never really hate him. The heart of the show, though, is Wellington’s Valerie. Through the course of the play, she moves from a passive object of affection to a revealer of heartwrenching yet relatable experiences. And Wellington truly shines, never shying away from visiting the most vulnerable parts of herself.

Irish writers are known for their lyricism and long-windedness, and Seanachai eats it up. With The Weir, Miller spits out a dialogue-packed product that’s still able to tap into our deepest fears of the unknown. I’m guessing the buzz will quickly mount.

   
  
Rating: ★★★½
    
    

The Weir - Seanachai Theatre 02

   
   

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