At five and a half hours including a dinner break, Rose Rage, Edward Hall and Roger Warren’s two-part adaptation of Henry VI, is an epic chronicle of ambition, intrigue, and above all bloodshed. For his staging Hall, the director, chose as his conceptual metaphor a slaughterhouse. As the War of the Roses rages center stage at Chicago Shakespeare, a menacing chorus of cutlery-wielding butchers waits on the perimeter, scraping and sharpening knives. At every performance two red cabbages, representing the heads of condemned prisoners, are shattered with a mighty sweep of the executioner’s ax. As other scheming nobles meet ever more gruesome ends, the ensemble chops and hacks away at 20 pounds of raw organ meats.

Hall did the show in London last year, so CST production manager Jennifer Smith knew what she was getting into. In an early production meeting, Hall told Smith he thought he’d need about five pounds of meat per performance. Smith started calling around.

“I was first asked to provide lungs, hearts, and intestines,” says Smith, who worked out the details with help from props manager Dan Nurczyk. “The lungs look good on the cutting tables. And the hearts are very important because there is a part in the show where a heart is supposed to be ripped from a body. We learned, after several calls to butcher shops, that not all of them handle innards or even do their own slaughtering on the premises. So we turned to wholesale meat distributors.” They in turn referred her to Park Packing, a Back of the Yards pig slaughterhouse.

Smith and Nurczyk went down to pick up a sample batch of meat; Smith got just under ten pounds, figuring it couldn’t hurt to have some extra. Back at the theater, Hall took a look at it and said, “That’s great–but I need a lot more.”

Once they’d settled on the right quantity–80 pounds a week, at a dollar a pound–the next task was to figure out what to do with it. “Since the meat is not for consumption, most of the health codes associated with food handling don’t apply to us,” says Smith. Still, they didn’t want it to smell or contaminate the theater. “We talked about where would be the safest place to store and prepare the meat,” says Nurczyk. “It had to be both far away from people, but still close enough to the stage to access at all times.” Eventually they installed a food service size refrigerator in the trap room under the stage.

The all-male cast didn’t start working with the meat until just before tech rehearsals began, but early on they took a field trip to the Apple Market on Clark, where a butcher taught them how to use and sharpen their knives. “All the knives have been dulled,” says Smith, “so it’s actually somewhat harder for the actors because it’s not like they’re trying to take a piece of meat and fillet it. The show’s about brutality, the meat is representing a dead body, and the knives are used as sound effects.”

“Livers make a better sound when the cleavers strike the cutting board,” says Nurczyk. “There’s also a moment in the show when an actor picks up some meat and slams it to the floor. This actor asked us for intestines–for the sound, and for the reaction it gets from the audience.” Miscellaneous innards are used to stuff plastic bags that are hung from meat hooks, representing slain enemies left to rot.

For the most part the actors were unfazed by the gore. “At first it grossed me out a little bit,” says cast member Fletcher McTaggert. “But at this point it’s become a prop…although there are some days when it smells terrible.” The hardest part is a scene in which McTaggert, playing Edward IV, must eat a scrap plucked from a skillet of sizzling stir-fry. “Wouldn’t you know that the only actor who has to eat the meat onstage would be a vegetarian,” says Nurczyk. “What’s in the frying pan is heart–it’s easy to cut, and it doesn’t smell when it’s cooked onstage–except for a little piece of seitan kept aside in a place where he can reach it easily. A little sleight of hand and he’s got the fake meat.”

The used meat is thrown out immediately following each performance, and the stage is swabbed down with bleach three times a day: before the show (Hall likes the way the bleach perfumes the auditorium), at the dinner break, and after the curtain. “We have washrags, disinfectant hand cream, and hand wipes everywhere,” says Nurczyk. “And since the actors have to handle knives, there are first aid kits throughout the building, as well as staff members trained to handle anything more complicated than a Band Aid. Everyone backstage makes the actors feel as comfortable with their tasks as possible.”

The audience, on the other hand, is supposed to feel uncomfortable–but not so uncomfortable that they can’t eat. In between the two parts of Rose Rage, theatergoers have the option of buying a box dinner from CST’s caterers. On opening night a rumor circulated that the boxes had originally included a rare roast beef option but that the caterers had rethought their decision after seeing the show. “I have heard no such stories,” says Nurczyk. “But considering that the stage is covered in red cabbage just before the dinner interval, I think it’s funny that the salad in the vegetarian lunch has red cabbage in it.”

Rose Rage runs through January 18 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand (Navy Pier). Most performances are sold-out, but last-minute tickets may be available. They’re $70 per person, not including dinner, which is an extra $16. Call 312-595-5600 or see the theater listings in Section Two for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.