Endless war? No, just another six hours of it. Credit: Liz Lauren

When last we looked in on those wacky, warlike Brits—in May, courtesy of Chicago Shakespeare Theater—they were busy taking over France. First King Edward III did it. Then Henry V did it again. Then it was Henry VI’s turn to do it, but he made a mess of things and kept his Gallic domains only by the skin of his diplomatic teeth.

All those forays were covered in Tug of War: Foreign Fire, a six-hour adaptation of three Shakespearean history plays by CST artistic director Barbara Gaines. I’m usually a big fan of marathon swordfests; thanks to the Bard, I think I must know more English history than American. But Foreign Fire was a distinct slog, and that the kings kept repeating themselves was only part of the problem. Gaines did too, overusing motifs that weren’t all that clear in the first place (a protocol indicating death involved slathering the victim’s forehead with some kind of goop), overworking empty anachronisms (an onstage rock band), and overkilling an already obvious message (war is bad).

Now Gaines is back with the second and final installment of her Tug of War epic, this one subtitled Civil Strife to indicate that we’ve turned away from offshore adventures to focus on a domestic dispute—specifically, the bloody 15th-century feud between the noble houses of Lancaster and York known as the Wars of the Roses.

But these new six hours aren’t nearly as difficult to sit through as the earlier ones were. Civil Strife turns out to be a significant improvement over Foreign Fire.

And a significant reason for the improvement is the material. An amalgam of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2; Henry VI, Part 3; and Richard III, Civil Strife has the advantages of narrative momentum and strong, ongoing characters. Where Foreign Fire kept crashing in the same car—one imagines a Citroën—the sequel supplies such long-haul essentials as rising action, life-and-death consequences, and vivid psychological development across its entire length. We see Steven Sutcliffe’s Henry VI, a kind of misfit Gandhi, tricked into marrying Karen Aldridge’s fierce French Margaret, much to their ultimate, cosmic regret. And the great Larry Yando as Richard, Duke of York, leading his four sons through a family saga as cruel and Pyrrhic as that of the Corleones. And, in an aside, Kevin Gudahl doing a Trumped-up version of Jack Cade, England’s wild, lumpen insurrectionist. Most important, we encounter Timothy Edward Kane’s fascinating Richard III: introduced early on as a bright, even sweet junior member of the York clan only to turn over time into a coolly paranoid tyrant steeped in blood.

Gaines has kept the rock band and still can’t resist the grandly obvious image (in this case, a back wall that drips blood every time somebody dies). But Civil Strife goes beyond its predecessor’s six-hour message fest to tell a compelling story.  v