Meat Is Murder

Scott Parkinson as Queen Margaret in Rose Rage.Photo: Michael Brosilow

In Rose Rage, co-adapted by Edward Hall and Roger Warren and directed by Hall, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater has conflated three parts of Henry VI. Coincidentally, these plays originated at the Rose Theatre in the early 1590s, and were based in part on an earlier chronicle by yet another Edward Hall—a chronological circularity that prevails in the trilogy and its tailpiece, Richard III, where the disastrous disintegration that began with the death of the splendid Henry V is resolved, and order restored, with the victory of Henry Tudor at Bosworth Field. The title also implies a sanguinary sort of road rage, with which England, in the bloody Wars of the Roses, lurched from lost grandeur to stability regained.

This Chicago presentation, replicating the British original, comes aptly from a city once known as the hog butcher of the nation. It conceives of medieval Britain as a Victorian slaughterhouse where every killing is illustrated by white-clad butchers cleaving throbbing hunks of organ meat; every beheading, by the cudgeling to smithereens of a head of red cabbage. Thus are we given a somewhat redundant and reductive tale of cabbages and kings, augmented by meat and, in one instance, the protracted filling of a receptacle with slowly, lovingly poured blood.

“Every killing is illustrated by white-clad butchers cleaving throbbing hunks of organ meat.”

If such drastic cutting of immature Shakespeare does not mean the loss of great dramatic poetry, it nevertheless impairs the narrative arc and the often ahistorical but dramatic symmetry of the structuring, excising most of the complementary matter about France. More problematic yet is the all-male cast, which in the Elizabethan theater featured beardless youths plausible in female roles, but here offers adult men inadvertently or, in one case, deliberately, camping. Unfeminine-looking Scott Parkinson, as the beauteous Margaret of Anjou, vamps outrageously, and turns a woman the chronicle describes as “of stomack and corage, more like to a man” into a figure of comedy more like a harridan. Altogether, these intermittently humorous but basically grim histories are transmogrified into much too pervasive farce.

This is certainly the noisiest Shakespeare I’ve ever witnessed, the clash of swords and thud of cleavers being the least of it. The unit set comprises contiguous steel cages encircling the central platform; on their chain-link doors, white-clad abattoir attendants, when not loudly sharpening their butcher knives, produce deafening scraping noises. The actors must outshout this persistent cacophony, rendering their largely Chicago sound even less ingratiating. (I have often remarked that unmusical American English, however close to Elizabethan pronunciation, falls well short of that British melodiousness with which English actors can liltingly enhance Shakespeare.)

Still, under Edward Hall’s skillful direction, the acting is generally acceptable, and certainly never dawdles. But neither are there any memorable performances from these twelve actors in multiple roles, with the possible exception of Joe Forbrich’s Jack Cade and Jay Whittaker’s future Richard III. The 5 1⁄2 hours’ total time is less daunting when you subtract the intermissions and the 75-minute dinner break, and though the spectacle is by and large more blatant than exhilarating, it is at least seldom boring. Vegetarian spectators will not even be bothered by the conspicuous waste of all that good meat.

Eugène Ionesco’s breakthrough plays, The Bald Soprano and The Lesson, have been revived by the Atlantic Theater Company in a new translation by Tina Howe. These early landmarks of absurdist theater make a good double bill: The first, labeled “anti-play,” is perfectly absurd, lampooning British quaintness and sexual prudery; the second symbolizes by absurdist means the rape of young minds by meaningless schooling. Soprano’s non sequiturs are hilarious; Lesson’s, funny and scary.

Inspired by the mild ridiculousness of an English phrase book he was struggling with in 1950, Ionesco heightened the preposterousness of such idioms in Soprano to the point where a married couple have a hard time recognizing each other, and a fire captain has fixed appointments with future fires. Things progress from the trivially ludicrous (e.g., a clock ringing seventeen times to denote nine o’clock) to pointless face-to-face, if not hand-to-hand, combat. As the hosts, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, become more and more demented, and their guests, Mr. and Mrs. Martin, match them in lunacy, the Smiths’ presumptuous maid and the needlessly intruding fire captain contribute further craziness.At its sanest, the dialogue, interspersed with pauses, runs thus:

Mr. Smith: The heart is ageless.
Mr. Martin: It’s true.
Mrs. Smith: So they say.
Mrs. Martin: They also say the opposite.
Mr. Smith: The truth lies somewhere in between.

At its zaniest, we get a heated, acted-out debate about whether, when the doorbell rings, there is someone there or not. Says the fire captain conciliatorily, “You’re both partially [as Howe erroneously translates “partly”] right … Sometimes someone is there, and other times no one is there.”

The gifted dramatist Howe lags as a translator. Though lively, her translation hardly improves on Donald M. Allen’s old one, and sometimes falls short of it. There is scant excuse for French passages in the English dialogue of Soprano, or for her scatology and obscenity in both plays. She often pointlessly cuts or elaborates, sometimes turns ungrammatical (“Me either”) or misunderstands. Thus when Soprano’s maid and fire captain, long-parted lovers, passionately meet, Allen correctly translates his “It was she who extinguished my first fires,” and her response, “I’m your little fire hose.” Howe fumbles this with his “She doused my very first flames” and her “I’m your wet little flood.” Again, she renders his maid’s warning to Lesson’s professor, about to teach phony linguistics to the intimidated student—in my translation, “Philology leads to worse”—as “leads to disaster,” which is less funny and certainly makes less sense.

Damaging too is Carl Forsman’s feeble direction, which softens or conventionalizes what is intended as icy or robotic. As the maid in The Lesson, meant to be middle-aged, maternal, and earthy, he misleadingly casts a young actress, sexy and sophisticated. Otherwise, the acting is mostly as good as the staging permits, with Jan Maxwell (Mrs. Smith) and Steven Skybell (Professor) better than that. But echt Ionesco this ain’t.

Meat Is Murder