A man who murders children, abuses his wife, and usurps the throne, Shakespeare’s Richard III is the epitome of villainy—and usually shown as a limping hunchback othered because of his disability.
Babes With Blades, in collaboration with University of Illinois Chicago’s Disability Cultural Center, challenges that portrayal in a current production at the Edge Theater.
Richard’s disability has often been caricatured, and mostly interpreted by able-bodied actors. Babes With Blades centers his disability and puts it in the hands of those with lived disability experiences, including a director who is Deaf, an actor with partial blindness playing Richard III, and a Deaf actor playing Queen Elizabeth, among other women and nonbinary performers with disabilities seen and unseen.
Richard IIIThrough 10/15: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM, Edge Theater, 5451 N. Broadway, babeswithblades.org; open captioning all performances 9/3-10/15, sensory friendly Sun 9/11-9/17, ASL Sat 9/24, audio description and touch tour Sat 10/1, ASL/audio description/touch tour/talkback Sun 10/9, livestreaming Sat 9/10 and Fri-Sat 9/23-9/24; $20-$35
Hayley Rice, the artistic director of Babes With Blades, invited disability advocate and artist Richard Costes to direct Richard III. During casting, Costes surveyed those auditioning to ask whether they identified as disabled and wanted to request accommodations.
Accommodations range from having a large-print script to needing to be late or take a day off because of mental health needs. Costes acknowledges that many actors are afraid to request these accommodations for fear they won’t be cast, believing that the theater company will be unwilling to pay for a longer rehearsal period.
“We really did our best to let the actors lead the way in terms of what they needed,” Costes says. “Then we did our absolute best to make sure that we could accommodate them.”
Costes was especially firm about casting people with disabilities in the opposing roles of Richard III and Queen Elizabeth, the woman who orchestrates his downfall.
Aszkara Gilchrist portrays Richard while Queen Elizabeth is played by Lauren Paige. Costes wanted those roles played by people with visible disabilities to explore why the characters choose different paths.
“Richard believes that, because of his disability, he has been shunned by women, by God, and by his own mother,” Gilchrist says. “This lack of love has left him feeling empty, and he feels that the only thing that will fill that emptiness is becoming king.”
Gilchrist says she used to hide her disability because she felt people would be unwilling to cast her. She wouldn’t bring her cane to auditions for fear directors and producers would see her blindness as a liability.
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“Only recently have I felt empowered enough to own my disability, and I began bringing my cane to auditions,” Gilchrist says. “Once I embraced who I am, a world of opportunities opened to me.”
Costes acknowledges that Shakespeare used Richard’s disability in an ableist manner, as a mark of evil.
“I cannot deny that the core of this play is Richard’s disability,” Costes says. “And there is no way to get around that Richard is a villain. I do not want to shy away from the ableism in the script in terms of the other characters using Richard’s disability as an insult.”
“Shakespeare endeavored to paint Richard as a monster,” Gilchrist says. “He used disability as a tool to dehumanize Richard, depicting him with an exaggerated hunchback and giving the other characters in the play intensely ableist dialogue—for example, many compare him to creatures, such as a hedgehog and a ‘bunch-backed toad.’”
Gilchrist’s interpretation is that Richard is a person who just happens to be partially blind the way that she is a person who happens to be partially blind.
“His disability has contributed to hardships in his life, and it has definitely made him self loathing,” Gilchrist says. “There’s even some jealousy towards the able-bodied people around him. However, these are just things that make him a complete, complex person. By bringing my own disability and life experiences to Richard, our production makes him feel like a real person, rather than a caricature.”
Gilchrist describes the collaboration with other disabled actors as incredible. She praises Costes for understanding her both as an actor and a person living with a disability.
“I resonated with his vision for Richard III from the beginning,” Gilchrist says. “We aren’t shying away from or excusing the atrocities he commits; in fact, we are highlighting them. It’s important for audiences to see a disabled, cisgender woman of color committing despicable acts onstage. It may be uncomfortable, but this is a chance for people to recognize their biases.”
Costes says they wanted to make sure that Richard’s disability was not the cause of his evil choices but rather one of many contributing factors. He adds that he and Gilchrist explored the internalized ableism and self-loathing that many people with disabilities experience.
“That’s natural in terms of having to exist in a world that is not built for you,” Costes says. “There is anger and frustrations that you go through on a daily basis that just builds and builds and builds and builds. That was our key to understanding Richard’s character.”
It also contributed to casting another character with disabilities who does not do all the monstrous things that Richard does.
“We are able to say that Richard had a choice,” Costes says. “He did not have to commit all these atrocities. Elizabeth shows us a different way.”
“I think it’s so interesting that the two masterminds of the play are both disabled,” Gilchrist says. “The audience will see how Richard and Elizabeth are similar in terms of their struggle with disability, yet they react very differently to the world and the people around them.”
Like other Babes With Blades productions, this show celebrates combat, not shying away from choreographing complex stage fights. Maureen Yasko provides fight and intimacy direction (with Jillian Leff assisting), creating fight choreography that Gilchrist calls both safe and visually striking.
“The stage combat in this production is unbelievable,” Gilchrist says. “It’s both a testament to the hard work and talent of the cast and Maureen’s incredible choreography. She isn’t afraid to lean into the darkness of the violence. I think people may be a little shocked at how intense some of the violence is, but it is so necessary to the story.”
The combat, Gilchrist says, emphasizes Richard’s cruelty and how horrific his actions are.
“The choreography is complex and exciting, and I know the audience will be wowed,” Gilchrist says.
Babes With Blades has endeavored to make the show accessible to all audiences. Every performance will have open captioning, and there will be sensory friendly performances on September 11 and 17; an ASL-interpreted show on September 24; an audio description and touch tour on October 1; livestreaming on September 10, 23, and 25; and a combined ASL interpretation, audio description, touch tour, and talkback on October 9.
The accommodations strive to ensure that no one in the audience feels othered the way that the eponymous villain of Shakespeare’s tragedy was.