Scene from Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of King Charles III, directed by Gary Griffin. (Photography by Liz Lauren)

Alumna faces a royal dilemma in “King Charles III”

Rae Gray, AB’14, plays an antimonarchist in love with a prince at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

The last time the Magazine checked in with actress Rae Gray, AB’14, she was a student in the College following a plum role at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre with an appearance in a Lookingglass Theatre production. On Wednesday night at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, I was delighted to open the program for King Charles III and see her name among the cast members.

Mike Bartlett’s 2014 play is having its Chicago premiere after vaunted runs in London and on Broadway (this production, directed by Gary Griffin, runs through January 15, 2017). Written in blank verse by Mike Bartlett, it imagines what happens after the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Between the funeral and coronation, Prince Charles, having waited much of a lifetime to rule as king, exercises his right as monarch to refuse to sign a bill—a right that hasn’t been used since the early 18th century. When he goes even further and dissolves an implacable Parliament, the country devolves into chaos.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"3774","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"358","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"500"}}]] Rae Gray, AB’14, and Alec Manley Wilson. (Photography by Liz Lauren)

Another plotline follows Prince Harry (Alec Manley Wilson), who escapes Buckingham Palace for a nightclub the night after the funeral. There he meets and falls for Gray’s character, Jess Edwards, a socialist art student who thinks the monarchy is a harmful anachronism.

In a cast of characters that includes such famous names as Kate Middleton, Camilla Parker-Bowles, and Princes Charles, William, and Harry—causing this playgoer to endlessly mentally toggle from the actors before her to the actual people they play—Jess stands out as the play’s main representative of the people, and the most important character with no real-life counterpart.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"3775","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"358","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"500"}}]] Rae Gray, AB’14, and Alec Manley Wilson. (Photography by Liz Lauren)

In Gray’s performance—praised by the Chicago Tribune as “forcefully played” and by the Chicago Sun-Times as “spot-on”—Jess is politically principled but truly cares for Harry. She makes him feel understood in a way he never has before, and he emerges as the most sympathetic royal of the bunch.

Meanwhile, as the coronation approaches other political gears start to turn, meshing the fate of Harry and Jess’s romance with that of the rash new king. It’s a credit to Gray’s and Wilson’s performances—and an impeccably crafted production—that their characters feel at once so unfairly crushed by that machinery, and so inevitably.