Review: Bottled Spiders and Blood Splatter in Chicago Shakespeare’s Richard III 

Now is the unseasonably warm winter of our discontent, and Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s new artistic director Edward Hall helms his first production on Navy Pier. Tony Award-nominated track and field Paralympian Katy Sullivan stars in a breeches role as Shakespeare’s Richard III. Sullivan launches the play “unfinish’d” with that famous couplet on the floor of the deeply thrust and sparse stage (scenic and costume design by Michael Pavelka):

“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York”

Katy Sullivan as Richard III. Photo by Liz Lauren.

She then elevates herself to an early 20th-century “invalid carriage” (Aly Easton is the disability consultant). As kingly ambitions rise alongside the body count, her bilateral lower leg prosthetics also grow more ostentatious. The final pair are running blades, echoing those of real-life South African Olympian and murderer Oscar Pistorius, and giving extra meaning to Richard’s thrice-mentioned comparison to a “bottled spider.”

Hall’s production is dark and stark, bloody and bawdy, aptly evoking an asylum with a Pink Floyd vibe, where orderly-like supers with white cotton full-face masks sing Latin in unison to cover well-choreographed scene changes (music by Jon Trenchard). Opaque plastic vertical blinds blunt the light and mask the blood splatter of murderous mayhem, including a small chainsaw massacre. Supertitle screens above the stage sides help viewers follow the political machinations of this Trumpian forebear. In real life, everything Trump touches dies. Richard garners the same result here. 

George, Duke of Clarence (Scott Aiello) and the ensemble. Photo by Liz Lauren.

At a tight two-and-a-half-hours, this production tracks Richard’s gory path to the crown as the last Plantagenet monarch. He woos political wives and kills rivals with equal abandon, even suffocating two young princes of the primogeniture in the Tower of London, here portrayed as puppets. Richard’s single-mindedness is focused and intense, but often delivered at the same pitch and cadence. The vicissitudes of usurpation could read more varied or fraught for heightened interest. The excellently played lords and ladies are merely chess pieces to be swept aside in the service of Richard’s unbridled ambition.   

For audiences who yearn for Game of Thrones-type slaughter, this is your gory jam. Like in Julius Caesar, this play also accurately compares bloody wounds to silenced mouths. Lady Anne (Jaeda LaVonne) says:

            “See, dead Henry’s wounds

          Open their congeal’d mouths and bleed afresh!”

Like in Henry IV, where Harry says “I shall hereafter…be more myself,” Richard finds himself alone and isolated as well (because he kills everyone, even most of his supporters). He notes that “Richard loves Richard” and “I am myself alone.” The text questions how leaders might be consensus-builders, and not just hack their way to the top. 

Real Richard was the last English king to be killed on the battlefield after his horse became mired in muck (much like his royal rider). “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!”is his swan song as the last Plantagenet on the planet. His likely bludgeoning at 1485’s Battle of Bosworth was the final gasp of the War of the Roses (Yorks vs. Lancasters), and what many consider the end of England’s Dark Ages.  

Like Ozymandias, Richard falls into disgrace and ignominy after his demise. The production reminds viewers how the brash usually topple spectacularly. King Charles recently ascended the throne after decades on deck, only to be diagnosed with cancer. Richard the Third ended up under a Leicester car park, where they discovered he likely wasn’t as disabled as Shakespeare made him out to be (he only had mild scoliosis). Disability representation is rare and important, and this is the first major US production to feature an otherly-abled woman in the titular role. But should the focus be on the disability of the body over the impairment of the soul? 

Richard III runs through March 3 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. Tickets are available online and at 312-595-5600. 

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.