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Richard III Stage Review

Placing Richard III on the stage in front of me at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre (CST) created a personal experience with Shakespeare that I have never had before. Watching the events of the play unfold before me provokes a different feeling than watching it on film. Seeing actors give thrilling performances mere feet from you creates an intimate experience that will not soon be forgotten. I will admit that going to see a tragic history seemed slightly less exciting than a romance or comedy, but the way CST executed this performance of Richard III was very engaging. I felt myself become more interested in the events of the play as I saw the full potential of this play performed on the stage.  

Keeping track of the characters from Richard III can be intimidating due to its extensive cast of characters, but the actors’ performances as these characters set them apart in memorable ways. Katy Sullivan stood out for her remarkable performance as Richard of Gloucester. She delivered her lines powerfully and impressively while managing to seamlessly move around the stage in a wheelchair or on the ground without the full use of her legs. She was able to maneuver in and out of her wheelchair and onto other furniture props without much help and made it look easy. Debo Balogun perfectly embodied his role as Ratcliffe, one of Richard’s closest advisors. He played the character in an effectively creepy way, wielding a handsaw menacingly throughout the performance. Demetrios Troy gave a powerful performance as King Edward IV, particularly when he found out his brother was murdered in his own name. The way he delivered his lines evoked more emotion than I expected to feel. Troy also interacted with crowd members while playing one of Richard’s potential supporters; he sat next to an audience member, talked to them and asked someone to hold his staff for him. Overall, each cast member seemed to be fully engaged with their character(s) and portrayed them effectively.  

There were many differences present between the film adaptation of Richard III (1995) and the stage play viewed at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. The starkest comparison would be the fact of Richard being played by a woman, actress and Paralympic athlete, Katy Sullivan. Choosing to cast this role in the opposite gender for this stage play holds a plethora of reasons behind it. Katy Sullivan is a decorated actress, who is also a paraplegic, which would naturally aid in the storytelling of Richard having some sort of physical deformity. Another possible reason could be the ever-growing concept of female equality in positions of leadership and power. With the presidential election happening later this year, I see it as possible that the casting of Richard III as a woman could have been linked to this political climate. Additionally, there were several other roles that were cast in the opposite gender, such as the Duchess being played by a man and Tyrell being portrayed as a murderous and creepy female nurse. In addition, Tyrell appeared near the end of the play, which is different than the film adaptation. 

In the stage play, there were several discrepancies also with the roles of the young princes. The roles themselves were played by dolls, who were controlled by other actors speaking for them. While I found this to be strange, I understood the reason for this as it would have been difficult for young kids to be involved in this violent play. As adults, we can distinguish what is real and an act, while children have a more difficult time drawing those lines. Additionally, there was a scene in which Richard spoke to the two of his nephews, where lots of dialogue was spoken. It would be impossible for children of that age to remember and recite the lines that would have been required for that scene. Lastly, I felt confused by the timing of the young princes’ deaths. Before the intermission, we saw the long dialogue scene between the two boys and their uncle Richard, in which we experienced his desire to kill the boys. They were led through the Tower and then it transitioned shortly after that to Richard putting on the crown. With this in mind, I presumed that the nephews had already been killed, since Richard would be unable to take the crown with rightful heirs still alive. After the intermission, we experience the death of the two boys and see their heads in the jar, which surprised me due to my thinking that they had already been killed.  

Regarding the stage setting and sound effects, I found the way this play was portrayed to be simple, yet extremely intriguing and effective. The majority of the set and clothing color scheme played well into the dark and gothic theme of this play. Throughout this play, the color red was prominent, as there were many murders and the spilling of blood was frequent. In the advertisement of the play, the actor who played Richard, Katy Sullivan, had bionic prosthetic legs and red hair. I would have liked to have seen these elements in the actual play. Perhaps they could have had her put the prosthetic legs on her when putting on the chainmail in preparation for battle. Additionally, red signifies power and anger, which would have been an appropriate addition to the character and her ultimate goal. While the set was sterile, metallic and simple, there was a variety of smaller props, namely, murder weapons. A few examples of weapons or small set pieces that were often seen are a small knife, scythe, hand saw, syringes, vials and more. They were able to reuse the body bags and the hinged table, being able to quickly transform it from table to throne, when needed. During this production, we also noticed the plethora of musical influence such as Latin chanting and rap. There was also the inclusion of an electric guitar during the scene where King Richard receives the crown. Lastly, in the moments before the killing of the young princes, Tyrell raises from under the stage, which a lot of smoke. This was a wonderful, artistic addition to the play, and it gave the audience clues as to the numb and heartless murder of the young children.                           

Many of the performances given during this play stood out for their excellent execution. One of these scenes that was memorable for me was the scene in which Margaret curses Richard and other members of her family for standing by and allowing Richard’s horrible deeds. Margaret (Libya V. Pugh) cuts her hand and uses the blood to throw at different people. Each time she curses someone, the stage lights turn red, and the background actors slam their rods on the ground. The coordination of all these actions at once made for a visually and audibly striking scene. Another memorable part of the play was the performances of the orderlies: background characters wearing white lab coats and eerie face masks. These characters showed up among the audience and on the stage before the play began and set the mood of the play. I was surprised by their presence at first, but they tied the scenes of the play together with their chanting and singing and their assistance of the main characters.  

One of the aspects of this play that made it feel more engaging than a traditional history is the bits of comedy that were mixed in. One of the best examples of this is the scene in which two murderers are sent to kill Richard’s brother, George, and start feeling guilty about the moral ramifications of becoming murderers. They make persistent efforts to get up the courage to finalize the deed, but they take too long, and George wakes up, further complicating the situation. I particularly enjoyed the performance given by Mo Shipley as one of the murderers as they engage in a lot of physical comedy.  

Overall, this theatre performance was an excellent introduction to Shakespeare on stage, and I would be interested in going to see another production at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre in the future. 


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