Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Richard III
Babes with Blades Theatre Company
Review by Christine M. Malcom

Aszkara Gilchrist
Photo by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux
Amid calls for the world to return to normal, Babes with Blades Theatre Company (BWBTC), in partnership with the University of Illinois Chicago's Disability Cultural Center, raises its collective voice in support of a new, more inclusive normal. With a lean, compelling production of Shakespeare's Richard III, helmed by Richard Costes, a deaf artist of color, and featuring a cast comprising actors, some with disabilities and some without, whose gender identities continue to be underrepresented on the stage, the company makes a powerful case for that new normal.

Artistic Director Hayley Rice notes that the play itself is uniquely well-suited to BWBTC's mission, which foregrounds stage combat in telling marginalized stories that feature flawed characters. Certainly, this fit is obvious on the surface, though it is worth noting that the text the company presents goes beyond this in its combination of characters and stripping away of expository scenes.

There are no anonymous murderers here, rather Richard manipulates the ambitions of those clinging to positions at court. Similarly, this is no place for a history lesson (not even Shakespeare's skewed, patron-serving one): there are no citizens gathering in the street to discuss the mutual machinations of the Houses of York and Lancaster. In this regard, the production has a somewhat high bar to entry if one is in it for the historical throughline. That said, what the production does take on is so well done, there's little reason to complain about a missed connection or two.

Sydney Lynne's scenic design is traditional on the surface. It doubles down on the Edge Theater's proscenium, establishing the throne as the literal centerpiece of the show's visuals. This is set in an alcove centered on a platform elevated three or four feet above the stage surface. On either side of this, red-curtained arches accommodate entrances from upstage as well as affording a vantage point from which to deliver scathing asides. In front of these are two platforms just slightly lower than the throne level, whereas a retractable set of stairs offers slightly easier access to the stage level. Each of these set pieces is painted with a subtle, mottled pattern, providing a constant reminder of the corruption and decay that runs rampant through the court.

When combined with kClare McKellaston's wildly varying, decidedly nontraditional costume design, the static, straightforward scenery comes to stand in for the ambition and blinding rage that unites the characters. For most of the more minor characters, McKellaston costumes in primarily masculine-coded pieces, combining out-of-closet vests and slacks with sword belts and dagger holsters. But mixed in with this are close-fitting leather leggings, fabrics shot through with metallic elements, and unexpected ruffles, corset-backed pieces, and other "feminine" touches.

For Richard, Elizabeth, and Queen Margaret–the three focal points of the production–McKellaston opts for something period-suggestive for the former and a sort of jagged, time-hopping hyper-femininity for the latter two. Overall, the visual jigsaw this presents stands in for diverse conflicts and dizzyingly complex histories all converging in violent ambition.

Although these elements of the design are effective, some choices and aspects are slightly less so. Early on, Richard, backed by the rest of the ensemble, offers a version of Tom Petty's "It's Good to Be King," and as he dies Timber Timbre's "Magic Arrow" plays. But other than Hastings singing a brief snippet of the Turtles' "Happy Together," popular music is not really part of the aesthetic, and Jesse D. Irwin's sound design is rather minimal; thus, these choices are somewhat intrusive and come across as something that was likely productive in rehearsals, but doesn't translate in the finished product.

A second choice that perhaps does not function as intended is the decision to use soft, blank-faced puppets to represent the young nephews that Richard ultimately murders. The puppets themselves, designed by Kat Pleviak, are visually arresting, and judging by the ease with which the the actors are able to operate them, skillfully designed. However, the audience at the performance I attended reacted to them as though they were intended to act as comic relief (this extended to a perplexing, but resounding chuckle when their lifeless bodies were dumped on to the stage), which certainly seems as though it cannot have been the director's intention.

The performances are very good to excellent across the board, and as Richard himself, Aszkara Gilchrist is nothing short of outstanding. Her command of the text and its rhythms supercharge the character, who seems to positively feast on the hateful, ableist abuse heaped on him. This Richard sets the bar for villainy and calls on the rest of the characters to rise to it at their own peril. Although a relatively minor element of such a powerful performance, Gilchrist, a legally blind actor, wields her folding cane strategically and percussively as a powerful instrument. Moreover, the fluidity with which she is able to navigate the battle scenes and the set itself are a testament to the skill and collaboration of all involved.

As Queen Elizabeth, Edward IV's ultimate widow and the mother of the murdered young princes, Lauren Paige is very good, although occasionally not up to Gilchrist's intensity. It is worth noting that, as the entire show is supertitled, any minor linguistic stumble on the actor's part must be especially nerve-wracking, and this does seem to get the better of Paige from time to time.

Pat Roache turns in a remarkable performance as Queen Margaret, one that is appropriately oversized, as Costes leans heavily into the curses she heaps on the heads of those who murdered her husband and stood by as her son was, likewise, murdered. This performance is even more effective juxtaposed to their understated performance as Brakenbury, who both hears Clarence's prophetic dream and lets his murderers enter with little resistance.

Other performances of particular note in a very strong cast are those of Jillian Leff and Kristen Alesia. As Buckingham and Hastings, respectively, the two mirror Gilchrist in interesting ways, foregrounding the villainy inherent in each and every character. Alesia is also arresting as Lady Anne, eliciting the best of Paige as Elizabeth and Leah Nicole Huskey as the Duchess of York. Kayla Marie Klammer and Madison Hill also deserve special mention, both individually for their performances as Ratcliffe and Lovell (the go-to assassins in this production) and as a duo, with perfect command of Shakespeare's comedy in the lead-up to to Clarence's murder.

Richard III runs through October 15, 2022, at The Edge Theater, 5451 N. Broadway, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, visit