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: Minna (Trap Door Theatre)

American Premier Is Absurd Entertainment

 Minna 2 

Trap Door Theatre presents:

Minna

by Howard Barker
directed by Nicole Wiesner
thru February 13th (ticket info)

review by Keith Ecker

minna_high_res2 It’s a pompous thing to create and name your own style of theatre. Some might say to do so takes a lunatic. Enter Howard Barker.

Barker is a British playwright who currently heads up his own company, The Wrestling School. The Wrestling School serves as a testing ground for his homemade, self-named theatrical genre, “Theatre of Catastrophe.” This style, according to Barker, “takes as its first principle the idea that art is not digestible. Rather, it is an irritant in consciousness, like the grain of sand in the oyster’s gut.” Furthermore, Barker does not anchor his work in realism or any sort of ideology. He is of the idea that art should be bold and challenging. And boy is his work challenging…and, surprisingly, rewarding.

Minna is a jaw-droppingly complex piece of theater. It bewilders and amazes on so many levels, like viewing a three-ring circus under the influence of some potent hallucinogen. Even as I write this, I find it difficult to describe the small semblance of a plot, yet the emotion the play draws out flows as if I’m currently watching the production. Really, it’s like a nightmare that just lingers with you for days.

To the best of my understanding, the play is about a young woman named Minna (Geraldine Dulex). She and the rest of the characters span two time periods, switching back and forth rather seamlessly and without warning. The first time period appears to be the 18th century. Men wear boots and frilly shirts while women don dresses that accentuate their bottom halves. Two corpses hang in the background—in fact they hang for the entire play, occasionally pleading to Minna, warning her of some fate they wish her not to befall. There is a military man named Tellheim (Kevin Cox) who evokes fear, anger and lust from Minna. A landlord (Derek Ryan) with a case of split personality presides over Minna’s quarters while three women, all named Fransisca (Sadie Rogers, Pamela Maurer and Kinga Modjeska), follow Minna dotingly like shadows.

Meanwhile, the fourth wall is all but obliterated as the Count (John Gray), a stereotypical British fop, takes a seat in the middle of the audience at the start of the show. He hems and haws throughout, making lewd comments in between stuffing his face with fruit and gazing through his opera glasses.

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The other time period is more contemporary, whisking the characters away to the mid-20th century. In this world, Minna is a powerful attorney and her antagonist, Tellheim, is on trial. Other characters appear as their parallel selves.

If Barker’s mission was to dash, subvert and corrupt any expectations the audience has of what might happen at any moment within the play, then he is absolutely successful. Randomness abounds as characters act out forced sexual acts, cross dress and occasionally call each other by the actors’ names. It’s a play that doesn’t want to be a play. It wants to be performance art. Yet it is a play, and a damn good one.

All the actors in the production must be commended. The dialogue is some of the most difficult I’ve ever witnessed. Often it has no semblance of reason. It’s seemingly random at parts, yet poignant at others. Often it’s delivered with the mania of a mad man. Yet all actors manage to channel this insanity into something real, something worth watching. No. More than worth watching—something great. This was art.

Minna is the directorial debut for Trap Door ensemble member Nicole Wiesner. Like the actors, she manages to construe something completely insane into a complex, yet digestible, production. Oftentimes every character on stage is doing something, making some face or emoting some feeling. Wiesner consistently manages to convey this without drowning out the point of focus.

Minna is definitely not for all. It’s a bucking bronco of a play that tries hard to shake the audience. But come prepared for the absurd, and hold on tight. It’s well worth it.

Rating: ★★★★

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Review: Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s “Richard III”

Richard 3

 

Chicago Shakespeare Theatre presents:

Richard III

by William Shakespeare
directed by Barbara Gaines
thru November 22nd (buy tickets)

reviewed by Richard Millward

Richard III is among Shakespeare’s earliest and most enduring successes and Richard, Duke of Gloucester and later King of England, perhaps his most thoroughly evil character. Despite the ingratiating manner he can turn off and on at will, Richard’s heart is as ugly and twisted as his body is deformed. Trusting no one, and thinking of nothing but his own gain, he is by turns vicious, conniving, dishonest – and utterly fascinating to audiences since Shakespeare’s colleague Richard Burbage first stepped onto the stage to declaim, "Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this son of York."

And that tradition continues unabated at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. In the capable hands of Artistic Director Barbara Gaines, Richard III once again works its magic of simultaneous attraction and revulsion. Briskly paced and sensibly edited, this "Richard III" is relentless in its march towards its anti-hero’s tragic, self-inflicted destiny.

Wallace Acton as the amoral royal of the title brings a surprising amount of humor to his role. His soliloquies and asides to the audience succeed in drawing us in, making us complicit in his mad determination to seize the throne. By the time the culminating battle is approaching, Acton’s Richard has come completely undone, but with a mania and a desperation entirely in keeping with the vicious joker of but a few hours earlier.

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Other standout performers in the generally strong company include Kevin Gudahl as Richard’s cousin and accomplice, the Duke of Buckingham, John Reeger as the steadfast Lord Stanley and Dan Kenney as Catesby, Richard’s personal enforcer. Brendan Marshall-Rashid brings authority and gravitas to the small but pivotal role of Richmond, the future King Henry VII and founder of the royal House of Tudor after Richard’s death.

Interestingly enough, it is the women of this "Richard III" who truly shine – women who give lie to the assumption that politics in the Fifteenth Century must have been a man’s game. Wendy Robie, as Richard’s sister-in-law, Elizabeth Woodville, Queen to the soon-deceased Edward IV, and Mary Ann Thebus as his mother, the Duchess of York, are fine, strong actors and women to be reckoned with; they deal with Richard on their own terms. Angela Ingersoll as Lady Anne Neville brings a delicate intensity to a notoriously difficult role. One can feel her chaotic emotions as she is wooed literally over the dead body of her father-in-law, King Henry VI, by the monster who killed not only that monarch, but Anne’s husband and her father. Ms. Ingersoll makes Anne’s impossible choices seem understandable – not an easy task.

Richard 3

Gaines makes terrific use of the sleek, heavily reflective multi-level set clad in plexiglass – designed by Neil Patel and lit beautifully by Robert Wierzel – including inventive use of exits and entrances all through the CST’s auditorium. Special mention needs to be made of Susan E. Mickey‘s brilliant costuming. Evocative of traditional Elizabethan shapes and silhouettes, but executed in muted palettes and of lighter weight fabrics, these are clothes that suggest and reference, without encumbering actors in layers and layers of detail (see video of Ms. Mickey’s perspectives on the visual world of the play here). The director and this designer all star team continue to surprise with images of startling beauty, right up to the closing moments.

Richard III may be one of Shakespeare’s most familiar vehicles, but this is a "Richard III" to remember.

Rating: ««««

 

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