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When Lithuania Ruled the World Part IV, at the Chicago Cultural Center. It’s a safe bet most Chicago theatergoers know little about Vytautus the Great, the 15th-century grand duke who ruled Europe’s last great pagan empire, Lithuania. He struggled against Poles, Germans, and Mongols, not to mention a double-dealing cousin, in an effort to unite what became an enormous country stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. In this fourth installment of his Lithuanian history project, writer-director-actor Kestutis Nakas attempts to rectify our ignorance with a playful, imaginative, gleefully lowbrow rendition of the ruler’s prolonged, morally ambiguous journey to power; as Vytautus himself admits, in order to survive he’ll change his name, his faith, and even his gender.
Nakas peppers his punchy anachronistic ritual–think Grotowski fed through Mr. Peabody’s way-back machine–with shameless pilferings from Dickens, Henny Youngman, Shakespeare, Mr. Ed, and numerous pop songs. While the writing often shows more flair than Nakas’s largely dutiful direction (shared with Carol Karaguez and Sean Kelley), his spirited cast exploit the script’s schlocky rapid-fire humor with nicely honed poker faces.
Nakas’s ironic shorthand gives the show a hip insouciance, but it also makes the evening feel sketchy, particularly if you don’t know the history. The play’s incessant political skirmishes begin to feel interchangeable, and after two hours of glib, hasty action, it’s difficult to find the production’s heart.