Richard, of Shakespeare’s long history play, is not a sympathetic character, but he lived in a time when it was completely acceptable for people in power or ascending to it to have perceived enemies disemboweled. Times would not get more enlightened for generations as various noble houses vied for the crown of England. As reimagined by director and new CST chief Edward Hall with double amputee Katy Sullivan as Richard, Duke of Gloucester ascended to King Richard III in the second act, the play is deeply tragic, unfailingly dark, funny, compelling and intensely watchable for the entire 2 hours and 35 minutes. This Richard III is a horror movie full of blood, guts and complete with The Chainsaw specialty cocktail in the lobby. You won’t want to miss it.
Katy Sullivan’s physicality as she scrambles across the stage gives a new twist to Richard’s deformity. As a Paralympian she has a supreme command of her body and is entirely believable in battle, and in the petty murders she commits on even those who aid and abet Richard’s rise. There is an interesting choice to leave her on the floor at the beginning of the play, have her rise to a wheelchair that is pushed, then a wheelchair she spins herself, to strapping on prosthetic legs which become more ornate as Richards moves up the food chain, until the battle when the blade prostheses used by amputee runners are fitted on. Richard is portrayed as a person who did not let disability define them, and Sullivan has a real life take on that, which intimately informs her acting choices. She is a Richard III for the ages, and this is a definitive portrayal.
Sean Fortunato harkens back to the original rendition of the play as a man playing a woman as Richard’s mother, and even she turns against her son. He also plays Lord Rivers, King Edward’s brother in law– dispatched in a body bag early on. There are so many methods of brutal murder in this show: stabbings, disemboweling, poisonings, beheadings, beatings— the violence is never ending. Many of the main characters fill ensemble roles as a kind of Greek chorus in white hospital coats and frightening bandage masks. They carry out some of the more terrifying violence. This cast is exceptional at moving the story forward at a clip and making it rich and meaningful, as well as appalling.
Michael Pavelka’s medical inspired set highlights the grimness of the blood and guts (is this an insane asylum?), and Jon Trenchard’s musical direction where the masked ensemble sings old English choral music in Latin gives this horror story a truly creepy edge.
This play becomes a cautionary tale for our time: men who crave power will use any means to retain it. These were pre-democracy times, but humans have not changed, and not even an election will not stop violent men from employing brutality and chaos to clutch on to their power.
In this dark winter get thee to Richard III, Wednesdays through Sundays (and a few Tuesdays) through March 3, 2024 at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s Courtyard Theatre on Navy Pier. For tickets and detailed information go to https://www.chicagoshakes.com/plays_and_events/2324_richard
Photo by Liz Lauren
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