Review: Katy Sullivan roars as ‘Richard III’ at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

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“I am determined to prove a villain,” Richard III famously tells us at the very top of the Shakespearean drama that bears his name, justifying his choice by himself being “rudely stamped,” “not shaped for sportive tricks” and “cheated of feature by dissembling nature.” Even dogs bark just at the sight of him, he says, channelling all of this resentment into a talent for murder, killing at least nine people in an evening’s traffic on the stage, including two young kids, before finally meeting his own violent end at the Battle of Bosworth Field.

Most of Richard’s murders take place off stage but the deaths are writ visceral in the new production of “Richard III” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater from incoming artistic director Edward Hall — a stylized (the princes are puppets) but still grisly affair, in a style more typically associated with Jacobean tragedy, the Grand Guignol or the TV show “Dexter.”

This highly arresting and courageous production stars Katy Sullivan, a Broadway actress, Paralympic sprinter and double amputee, and its main thrust is that Richard’s rampage follows a game plan familiar in modern American politics, treating governance as a zero-sum game and taking ruthless advantage of oppositional decorum and adherence to rules, which are seen weaknesses. One does not need to spell out the leading modern practitioner’s name. The tactic insists that the true and the just is just someone else’s narrative, folks, and the end result is political confusion. Exploitable political confusion.

That is certainly a legitimate approach to “Richard III,” a play emblematic of the so-called Tudor myth, wherein Shakespeare, who knew upon which side his bread was buttered in Queen Elizabeth’s England, trashed Yorkist Dicky and boosted the moral authority of the Tudors, whose claim to the English throne was, when you really look at it, pretty dubious. The play is the ubertext of the notion that history gets written by winners, especially since they discovered the real Richard’s body in the English city of Leicester in 2012, ignominiously covered by a parking lot.

That is the show’s strength, as epitomized by Sullivan’s vigorous verbosity and high-energy performance, a contemporary rendering of the text very much in the tradition of this particular theater. Sullivan, it hardly needs stating, is not a traditional Richard but her work is intoxicating in her present-tense commitment and in how she uses her particular physical assets. In the beginning, her Richard talks to us without his prosthetics; as the play progresses he dons the shanks necessary for palace leadership and, when Richard finally takes to a battlefield where a horse is worth a kingdom, he dons running blades. It’s a powerful physical trajectory, to say the least, and it’s at the core of Hall’s approach to the play, joined here by a capable supporting cast that includes the likes of Scott Aiello, Erik Hellman and Debo Balogun (as Ratcliffe).

But there are also some disconnects here. While Michal Pavelka’s scenic and costume design is both artful and well-suited to the environmental amplification of butchery and chain-saws, even including those plastic dangly things beloved of meat markets, the show employs a masked chorus doing many of the deadly deeds. I think Hall intended this creepy crew to reflect Richard’s inner life, but they come off more as his external subordinates because they’re agents of the plot and not sufficiently connected to Richard, emotionally. We really don’t get much sense at all of Richard’s doubts, even though Shakespeare constantly wrote them into the play. Quieter moments are few.

Sullivan finally makes you aware of Richard’s worries in the “O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!” monologue, but by then it’s Act 5, Scene 3 and the bodies have piled up. The show runs a tad afeared of the notion of Richard as seductor (or, if you prefer, seductress), even though this play has the hardest scene to perform in all of Shakespeare, which is Richard’s lightning fast wooing of Lady Anne (Jaeda LaVonne) even though he has killed, or helped kill, her husband, father and father-in-law. LaVonne grabs you for a quick second there with Anne’s confused anguish but the scene doesn’t pop as it should, and then show then seems to drop this particular explanation for Richard’s efficacy.

Richard marrying Anne can’t just be an expedient choice — she doesn’t improve his claim to the throne — so then why is this crazy scene here? Surely, it’s to note that Richard has personal, sensual charm. I think these performers could have run much further with all of that, here and elsewhere, and it would only have enhanced Hall’s central narrative.

Whatever you are doing with “Richard III,” and this show is doing plenty worth seeing and hearing, his deceptive opening statement about being “determined to prove a villain” has to have a potent counterpoint, lest he become a psychopathic and melodramatic villain that flattens the dramatic tension even as the actions come thick, fast and bloody.

That can’t just be via the avenging Earl of Richmond (the well-cast Demetrios Troy) or Queen Margaret (an uncompromising Libya Pugh) or anyone else, but needs to crystalize as the creeping doubts within the head that wears the crown. The body, and our reaction to otherness, is certainly at the core of this deceptively complicated play and thanks to a cleverly nihilistic and profoundly haunting series of arrangements of traditional music from Jon Trenchard that pockmark this show, we imbue the atrophying of the body politick.

I just wish the show had more for hesitation and doubt. We could all use a bit more of that right now.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

cjones5@chicagotribune.com

Review: “Richard III” (3 stars)

When: Through March 3

Where: Courtyard Theatre at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave.

Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes

Tickets: $38-$97 at 312-595-5600 and www.chicagoshakes.com