Regional Reviews: Chicago
Michael Pavelka serves as both scenic and costume designer. For the set, Pavelka leaves the thrust bare for the majority of the show, whereas the upstage area is framed by metal scaffolding dressed with piles of skulls and bones at the base of each upright, creating a ceiling-high proscenium. This is mirrored by a rolling platform, similarly constituted, and both are occasionally concealed by slaughterhouse curtains of plastic strips. These elements work well, and through the use of tall, rolling surgical screens and tight, competent blocking, the foundation of the scenic design contributes to effective pacing.
This is not true of the staging across the board, however. Other than these structures, the only other frequently present "set" piece is something like an autopsy table that converts into the throne, and the design makes free use of body bags. These last two elements are emblematic of nonproductive tension between the visuals and drama of the play itself. Conversion of the table to throne, and vice versa, is awkward, time consuming, and loud. The body bags are loud as well, often obscuring dialogue, and there seems to be little rhyme or reason to whether or not a bag is meant to look as if there really is something of heft and substance within it.
In addition to imposing some seemingly unnecessary practical complications, the production leans very heavily into horror of the torture-porn variety. Although Pavelka's costumes for most of the cast are are attractive, upper-crust pieces for those who are in near-constant mourning, he outfits the "chorus" in voluminous white medical coats and has them all in close-fitting white masks akin to balaclavas with the top and back of the head open.
These have a strong Michael Myers vibe to go with an execution by chainsaw (performed in silhouette behind the slaughterhouse curtain), an evisceration, and James Tyrrell transformed into Jane Tyrrell (a perplexing choice given the retention of the play's names and pronouns otherwise, regardless of the actor's gender presentation), who appears as a nearly wordless, bloody nurse in a clear plastic mask who seems to have stepped out of a horror video game.
It's certainly not that the "American Horror Story" vibe is out of place in this, of all the histories. But this aesthetic is turned all the way up from the beginning, so there's little room for development. Moreover, it often simply doesn't seem to inform the play's drama or even its uncomfortable humor. This is especially frustrating because of what does work in the staging.
Jon Trenchard's music is exquisite and underscores the fact that the notion to use a chorus to reflect the damaged psyches and corroded souls of Richard and the play's other conspirators and collaborators was a fundamentally sound one. Marcus Doshi's lighting design works well to move the action around the stage, creating shadowy corners and pools of light for side conspiracies. All told, Hall's vision for the production has the hallmarks of one that could have been truly transcendent if it were not for a few too many elements prone to distract rather than enlighten.
And the cast here deserves the transcendent. Katy Sullivan's appeal as Richard himself is irresistible. She has his wit and bullet-proof arrogance nailed down, and her physicality is put to great use here, as Hall calls on her to build the character literally from the ground up.
In a show that so entirely belongs to the title character, it's often difficult to know in what order to tackle other performances. Here, there is little question that Libya V. Pugh deserves second mention as Queen Margaret. It's a delicious role, of course, but Pugh shakes the walls and makes the audience believe in their bones that each and every curse will come to pass. Jessica Dean Turner as Queen Elizabeth also delivers on the righteous wrath of the play's women, though hers is a fury that is compellingly quiet and contained.
Yao Dogbe is a charismatic Buckingham and an excellent and charismatic co-conspirator for Richard, and Debo Balogun executes a take on Sir Richard Radcliffe that could have been much sillier (the character sort of serves as the superintendent of the asylum here, and he carries around a small saw for the entire show) in hands less capable than his.
Some of the choices for double casting are interesting and well done. Sean Fortunato plays both Queen Elizabeth's brother, Lord Rivers, and the Duchess of York. As the former, he is an enjoyable dandy and a bit of a dolt. As the latter he faces off impressively with Queen Margaret and brings pathos to the role. Similarly Demetrios Troy is an appropriately hapless (and half-dead from early on) King Edward, yet a powerful presence as the Earl of Richmond. And Scott Aiello's work as George, Duke of Clarence, particularly in his death scene is a remarkable counterpoint to his military poise and confidence as Lord Stanley.
Mark Bedard and Mo Shipley also deserve special mention for their silent film comedy during the murder of Clarence. Their handling of the choreography, as well as the way they lace even the laugh lines with menace, mark a highlight where Hall's concept is firing on all cylinders.
Richard III runs through March 3, 2024, in the Courtyard Theater at Navy Pier, 800 East Grand Avenue, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit www.chicagoshakes.com or call 312-595-5600.