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Gift Theatre’s ‘Richard III’ — as you’ve never seen him before

Michael Patrick Thornton (from left), with Martel Manning and Jay Worthington in The Gift Theatre's "Richard III." (Photo: Claire Demos)

The premise that drives Shakespeare’s “Richard III” is set out clearly very early in the play as the physically disabled and emotionally warped Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who is hellbent on becoming King of England, declares: “And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover… I am determined to prove a villain.”

In other words, because he cannot live as most normal men, and experience love, he will turn to acquiring power, by any and all means, no matter how evil. And watching the play’s unique production by The Gift Theatre (which is celebrating its 15th anniversary with this “guest” staging at the Steppenwolf Garage), you cannot help but think of the slew of real-life characters now in pursuit of the American presidency, or suppress the impulse to engage in a bit of Shakespearean-style psychoanalysis of the contenders.

But there is far more in this lean yet volcanic production directed by Jessica Thebus in a nearly-in-the-round space. For playing the title role here is actor Michael Patrick Thornton, whose own “disability” becomes an intrinsic element in the storytelling. (The actor suffered a spinal stroke in 2003 that left him paralyzed from the neck down, although he subsequently has regained some mobility after extensive work at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.)

As Thornton moves about in a wheelchair, rises with great effort to grab hold of a walker, dramatically strides through the play’s climactic scenes with the aid of a state-of-the-art ReWalk exoskeleton (a wearable mobile apparatus powered by a system of motors), and finally collapses to the ground, all memories of other Richards with their limps, humped backs and crippled arms fade from memory.

Michael Patrick Thornton in The Gift Theatre’s “Richard III.” (Photo: Claire Demos)
Michael Patrick Thornton in The Gift Theatre’s “Richard III.” (Photo: Claire Demos)

‘RICHARD III’

Highly recommended

When: Through May 1

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

Tickets: $30 – $40

Info: (312) 335-1650; www.steppenwolf.org

Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission

This is the real thing. But of course it would be nothing were Thornton not also a superb actor — a master of the acerbic, the slyly twisted, the blackly comic and the chillingly manipulative, who fearlessly steers clear of sentimentality. He also is surrounded by a fire-breathing cast, whose female characters, in particular, play their roles to withering effect.

There are, to be sure, any number of impediments to Richard reaching the throne. He must find a way to have his brother, Clarence (the excellent Thomas J. Cox), murdered. In the most perverse of all wooing scenes, he must convince Anne (the enigmatic Olivia Cygan), who knows he is responsible for the death of her husband, to marry him. He has only to bide his time briefly before the frail Edward IV (Adrian Danzig) dies of grief. And then, most hideously of all — he sets his murderous sights on Prince Edward, the boy who is immediate heir to the throne. (The prince and his younger brother, both destined for death, are played winningly by actresses Hannah Toriumi and Brittany Burch.)

Left to rage and mourn is their mother, King Edward’s widow, Elizabeth (Jennifer Avery), who must eventually make a horrific deal with “the devil” (Richard). And Avery’s mix of repulsion, strength and ultimate impotence is thrilling to watch.

With most of the impediments out of the way, Richard, in league with the Duke of Buckingham (a deft turn by Keith Neagle), is in line for the throne. But shrewdly hiding his lust for coronation, he plays it so that he must be begged to accept the crown.

Making a couple of blistering appearances during the play is Margaret (Shanesia Davis, spewing a bravura stream of curses, burns up the stage), exiled widow of King Henry VI, who knows Richard’s machinations all too well. And as the young Richmond, who ultimately silences Richard, and sets the kingdom right again, Gregory Fenner delivers a bristling, fully heroic speech with admirable intensity.

Thebus’ minimalist concept creates a white heat with the simplest means: The use of poles, beaten rhythmically, to suggest every sort of mortal weapon (powerful work by fight choreographer John Tovar), and the use of gauzy scarves to suffocate the young princes. A frame of bare branches (by set designers Jacqueline and Richard Penrod) is just enough to suggest the “winter of our discontent,” along with dramatic lighting by JR Lederle, fittingly gray costumes trimmed with ruffs and fur by Sully Ratke, and ominous music by Kevin O’Donnell and Aaron Stephenson.

To be sure, you leave “Richard III” thinking that despite our current situation, electoral politics might indeed be the best option.

Jennifer Avery (left) and Shanesia Davis in The Gift Theatre’s “Richard III.” (Photo: Claire Demos)
Jennifer Avery (left) and Shanesia Davis in The Gift Theatre’s “Richard III.” (Photo: Claire Demos)