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Thornton connects with ‘Richard III’ on a most personal level

Michael Patrick Thornton stars as the title character in Gift Theatre's production of "Richard III." | SUPPLIED PHOTO

By Mary Houlihan

Richard III is one of the most powerful and difficult roles in the Shakespearean canon. Actor Michael Patrick Thornton is discovering just how difficult as he readies the role for Gift Theatre’s staging of the historical drama which is part of the Shakespeare 400 celebration. Thornton is taking the role into a different dimension than most actors.

Thirteen years ago, Thornton, co-founder and artistic director of Gift, suffered two spinal strokes that left him paralyzed from the neck down. It was a long road back filled with challenging rehab before his return to the stage in 2006 in Conor McPherson’s “The Good Thief,” a one-man show about an Irish thug that won Thornton rave reviews. In recent years, Thornton has found great success in the director’s chair with the occasional foray into acting.

‘Richard III’

When: To May 1

Where: The Gift Theatre at Steppenwolf Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted

Tickets: $30-$40

Info: steppenwolf.org

Thornton, who can use a walker but mostly gets around in a wheelchair, says he can connect to the lame, hunchback Richard in the usual actor ways but there is one aspect of portraying him that clearly hits close to home — Richard’s disability is a driving factor in his machinations to seize the English throne and assure his place in history.

“Richard is very scary and very intimidating in terms of his anger and fury at being an outsider of being consigned to this fate based on these preconceptions of what a disability means,” Thornton says. “It’s fascinating in terms of the lengths he’s willing to go to be seen, to be recognized.”

With help from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC), The Gift production aims to redefine what disability, and what Shakespeare’s infamous villain can look like. Thornton is interested in the “intersection between disability and politics” (think FDR). “I’ll be moving differently than people are used to seeing me,” he says, adding that he wants to keep the “new technology” a surprise.

Richard’s opening speech in which he lays out his treacherous plan quickly uncovers his mindset, says the shows’s director Jessica Thebus.

Michael Patrick Thornton in rehearsal for Gift Theatre’s production of “Richard III.” | COURTESY GIFT THEATRE
Michael Patrick Thornton in rehearsal for Gift Theatre’s production of “Richard III.” | COURTESY GIFT THEATRE

“He’s furious with God and the world because of the differences between his body and other people’s bodies,” Thebus says. “As he says, ‘since I cannot prove a lover… I am determined to prove a villain.’ So we are looking at the ways in which his fury and physicality develop through the story by working with RIC and using everything from a walker and wheelchair to more cutting technologies.”

Thornton sees Richard as someone who “comes out of the farthest recesses of the castle” where he developed “an impeccably specific and multifaceted imagination that created an interior fantasy world that migrates out into the world where England becomes his playpen.”

Thornton can relate: “As a disabled person you have to enter society, whether it’s the entertainment business or something else you have to elbow your way into because you’re actively not going to be seen. I certainly understand why he sets up all these possibilities for himself.”

Thebus says Thornton’s performance is “very vulnerable and very emotional. His Richard really makes sense to me.”

Before moving to the Steppenwolf Garage, “Richard III” was originally going to be staged at the now defunct Next Theatre. Last season The Gift staged “Othello,” its first attempt at Shakespeare, but performing “Richard” in its very intimate space was impractical, says Thornton.

“’Othello’ takes place in close quarters and hallways and the intimacy of our space worked well,” he notes. “But ‘Richard’ wanted a bit of grandiosity and I don’t think we’d get away with that without blowing out the walls,” Thornton adds with a laugh.

The Gift is currently looking for a new, larger space and plans on staying in the Jefferson Park neighborhood (it’s in the company’s bylaws).

“We’ve proven that the equity storefront model can be sustainable and can thrive,” Thornton says. “Yet at the same time for a company preoccupied with the actor-audience relationship we have no ability to interact with them. It’s time for a bigger space where we can implement that in different ways.”

But fans of the storefront space need not worry — the theater isn’t going to be abandoned, says Thornton.

“Its challenges have yielded some amazing aesthetical results. I think the next generation coming up should learn how to work and grow with those challenges, too.”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.

Posted 2:00 p.m. March 3, 2016