With a cast entirely of women and gender non-conforming actors, Babes With Blades Theatre Company’s Richard III is meaty, violent, and reflective. A decimating opening battle sets the tone for this production of Shakespeare’s iconic history play, and thanks to Becca Venable’s lighting design, pools of blood-red light spill across the stage. But this story is not all about blood and death. Characters sing joyful music to celebrate victory, and even while mothers wail to grieve the dead, hope for a brighter and more just future is not far beyond the horizon.
In his famous opening speech, “Now is the winter of our discontent…,” Richard, Earl of Gloucester (Azskara Gilchrist, she/her), describes himself as “rudely stamped and want of love’s majesty,” and “Cheated of feature by dissembling nature, // Deformed, unfinished.” Setting the stage for the play, he explains that because he cannot be a lover, his “deformity” drives him to be the opposite — a villain. Shakespeare critics and disability activists have long argued that it is necessary to have Gloucester’s role cast with a disabled actor, and with this production presented in partnership with the University of Illinois Chicago’s Disability Cultural Center, Babes with Blades has done just that. Gilchrist, in a gripping performance, uses her mobility device as a percussion tool, smartly accenting Shakespeare’s already rhythmic pentameter as she plots to crown herself king in penance for the world’s scorn.