Richard the Terrible: A challenging new interpretation of three Shakespeare plays opens at the University of Chicago

A pale beam of light washes over an elevated throne, lending it a sickly glow that cuts through the darkness. We will see many swords, but appropriately, this glistening prize is the only object remaining onstage throughout the grotesque affair. It is both the catalyst for the ensuing butchery and its silent witness. Slowly the players emerge, and fall into stylized stances around the throne, as a menacing, hunchbacked Richard addresses the audience in his famous monologue: “Now is the winter of our discontent…”

“I started thinking about this project at the end of my first year. Initially I just wanted to do Richard III, a character I’d always found compelling and that I’d come back to again and again,” reveals Griffin Sharps, the director of “Shakespeare’s King Richard III: a retelling.” Sharps also edited the play to fit his specific–and dreadful–vision. The staging goes up this Wednesday after a full two years of development. It depicts the conflict between the houses of Lancaster and York over the English crown during the War of the Roses, and the eventual rise and fall of the deformed Richard III. The original idea included an all-female cast and a thematic emphasis on the corruption and perversion that runs throughout the text, staged as a hyper-violent drag spectacle. Indeed, Richard’s world is a nightmare of violence and upheaval: the throne lacks a legitimate king, which has upset both the political and natural worlds. In the midst of this terror, noblemen battle for power, and families tear themselves apart in a mad scramble for the crown.

Sharps elaborates, “I thought about how problematic that would be for Shakespeare’s audience. You’re showing a world in which the natural order has been disrupted, presumably this is the worst thing that could happen to a country, but you show it to people and they consume it as entertainment.” Why would the Bard do such a thing to his audience? Of course, in the original, singular production of “Richard III” there’s a moral: we are permitted to be enthralled and entertained by Richard because, in the end, he gets what’s coming to him, and the kingship is restored along with our belief in the necessity of a divinely-ordained king. Sharps had a different idea entirely. He says, “Initially I thought, ‘What happens if you just cut that out? What if you just leave the nightmare and just never wake up?’ What I found was that the more you think about it that way, the more it forces you to think about how the audience is consuming and participating in acts of horror… and even in some way enabling them, since the audience is always involved with what is going on onstage.”

Although a desire to explore and exploit this insight in relation to the darkness and turbulence of the text motivated what had been Sharps’s original all-female horror-porn concept, the play has greatly evolved since that initial burst of inspiration. The current show, which now features a mixed-gender ensemble and several child actors, is actually a cutting together of several plays (“Henry VI” part 2 and 3 and “Richard III”), which allows it to have a single story arc centered on Richard. Several scenes and secondary characters have been cut to give the plot a brisker pacing and thematic form. Richard’s monologues act as counterpoints, giving us a glimpse into his wretched inner workings, while serving as vantage points on the unfolding misery and intrigue. Tellingly, a lot of the carnage has been moved offstage: “What I found was the more I could push it into the realm of the grotesque in terms of its effects on people instead of through onstage violence, the more effective it was. You don’t see the son die, but you see the mother watching him die.”

The show’s designers have assembled a coherent and effective aesthetic for this tragedy. The set design by David Jarvis is minimalist yet bold, with the singular throne appropriately dominating the space and shaping the activity within it. The sleek costuming gives a definite visual style, as well as a certain edge. The lighting creates a placeless world for the characters, where concrete settings are replaced by an affective environment infused with dread, mourning, and violence. This serves to accent key scenes and intensify the emotional impact of the many fight scenes and performances, which is fortunate because the cast is largely terrific. Ryland Barton is perfectly detestable and fully believable as the title character, while David Guyton and William Butts give intense and thorough performances as King Edward IV and the Earl of Warwick, respectively.

Sharps is ultimately proud of his morally ambiguous work. “What I’ve tried to do is to create a situation in which the audience is given absolute permission by the play to consume all of these objects of horror and violence unproblematically… which I think forces people to realize that there’s something deeply wrong about that.”

Francis X. Kinahan Third Floor Theater, Reynolds Club, 5706 S. University Ave. May 21. Wednesday, 8pm, free. May 22-24. Thursday-Saturday, 8pm, $6.