Where: The Gift Theatre at Steppenwolf Garage, 1624 N. Halsted St.
When: through May 1
By ANNE SPISELMAN
You’ve never seen a Richard III like Michael Patrick Thornton. The actor, who uses a wheelchair because of two spinal strokes in 2003, not only turns his disability into a strength of Gift Theatre’s production, he also makes Shakespeare’s iconic villain perversely admirable and ingratiating enough that we understand the hold he has over those around him.
Thornton and director Jessica Thebus have orchestrated several key power moments for the would-be king in this “Richard III.” The first is during the remarkable seduction of Lady Anne (Olivia Cygan), whose husband he has just murdered. He caps his argument that she should bury her grief and become his bride by slowly rising from his wheelchair with the help of a walker, then moving one side of it to draw her in, closing the gap so she can’t escape, and finishing his plea with them facing each other inches apart.
The second, at the top of Act 2, is his coronation scene. Wearing a ReWalk robotic exoskeleton (provided by the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, the show’s main sponsor), Richard walks very slowly across the stage to accept the crown, and then back again later on. He towers over everyone else, unlike when he’s in the chair, and we hear the noise the device makes with every step.
The third is his downfall, literal as well as figurative. Cast from his wheelchair to the ground by his opponents, Richard can’t get up no matter how hard he tries. Knowing that his pain and struggle are real makes them all the more potent and a very different experience from watching an actor pretending to have a hump, limp, and withered arm.
Thornton plays on our perceptions with a matter-of-fact acting style, informing us of his evil intentions is the most casual tones, drawing us into his confidence with asides, mocking those who oppose him for our benefit. His approach is all the more effective because none of them stands out as especially virtuous, sympathetic, or even three-dimensional.
This is the result of everything from Thebus’ overall conception to Sully Ratke’s costumes, both of which are problematic. Rather than starting “Richard III” at the beginning with the “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech,” the director takes us first to Bosworth Field the night before the final battle. Richard is alone in his tent (except for the attendant who brings him wine), and instead of seeing the ghosts of those he’s killed, as in Shakespeare, he reviews his rise to this point, in other words, most of the play. He is in control of the action and can start and stop it at will, which he frequently does, especially for those asides.
There is a dramatic payoff—part of which I won’t reveal—but also a down side. Anyone who isn’t familiar with the play will have a hard time figuring out what is going on and who’s who, at least until the second half.
Henry, Edward, and many others who stand in Richard’s way die or are dispatched before we realize who they are, much less care. Clarence’s (Thomas J. Cox) demise makes a bit of a mark, as does that of the young princes (sweetly played by Brittany Burch and Hannah Torlumi), but they’re still pawns in Richard’s game. Even Buckingham (Keith Neagle), his right-hand man for a time, and Elizabeth (Jenny Avery), who he convinces to let him marry her daughter after murdering her sons, are no match for him. Only curse-slinging Margaret (the fiery Shanésia Davis) remains immune.
The amount of doubling contributes to the confusion. Often an actor dies as one character, only to appear a few minutes later as another—without a noticeable change of costume. All wear combinations of gray, white, and some black with ruffs around their necks, drop pearl earrings (men and women), some fur trim, and the occasional cape in a muted color. All the men have buzz cuts (except one) and beards.
The stylization extends to the in-the-round staging and the stripped-down setting. Wooden staffs in various lengths stand in for all the weapons and also provide the sound effects for be-headings and such, supplemented by Kevin O’Donnell and Aaron Stephenson’s original music and sound design. Jacqueline and Richard Penrod’s scenic design features white-painted tree limbs dangling from the ceiling around the perimeter of the theater, black drapes, and a white curtain to suggest Richard’s tent. JR Lederle’s lighting does the rest.
Thebus deserves praise for being daring, but without Thornton’s compelling performance, I don’t think I could recommend this “Richard III.” With it, the show is a “must see.”