In its current production of Shakespeare’s Richard III, Chicago’s Gift Theater offers an interpretation of the king not seen before. At his coronation, as he surveys his troops and those in attendance, Richard III begins to walk through the crowd – wearing a ReWalk exoskeleton.
In this play, the Machiavellian main character is usually interpreted as a hunchback with a limp arm, in keeping with Shakespeare’s description of him:
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them. (I.i.1823)
For this production, however, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago has partnered with Gift Theatre to bring the ReWalk on stage for the first time. The character of Richard III, performed by one of the co-founders of the Gift Theatre, Michael Patrick Thornton (also known from ABC’s Private Practice), is played as a paraplegic. Thornton brings an authenticity to the role that few can, because, in 2003, he suffered two strokes, resulting in a spinal cord injury that has left him partially paralyzed and in a wheelchair.
While seeing Richard III in a wheelchair or using the ReWalk exoskeleton certainly catches the attention of the audience, it is Thornton’s interpretation of the role that keeps the audience’s attention throughout the play.
Thornton’s portrayal is downright scary, in the Hitchcock style of psychological terror. His character is the very definition of a sociopath.
He can be thoroughly charming when it suits his purposes, as when he convinces Lady Ann to marry him, even though he recently murdered both her husband and her father – and then blamed her beauty for their deaths when she confronted him about it. As soon as he has won her, though, he reveals his cold-hearted nature once again with this dismissal: “I’ll have her; but I will not keep her long.”
He is a master at twisting words to confuse his enemies and get them to align themselves with him. He not only feels no remorse about his actions, he seems incapable of understanding why anyone would not see the necessity for those actions. He professes innocence about his motives and then displays astonishment that anyone would think otherwise, and he does it so convincingly that he completely confuses and disarms his accusers. His utter coolness in the face of his evil acts and his complete lack of remorse, casually dismissed with phrases designed to confuse the most skeptical listener, makes this one of Shakespeare’s more disturbing plays.
Although Thornton’s role is the one that garners the most attention, he is supported by very talented cast members who offer their own share of emotional intensity and skillful interpretation of the roles.
The Gift Theatre’s production of Richard III, directed by Jessica Thebus, is being performed at Steppenwolf’s Garage Theater (1624 N. Halsted St.) through May 1. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling Steppenwolf at 312-335-1650.
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