Michael Patrick Thornton in The Gift Theatre’s Richard III. Photo by Claire Demos.
The real Richard III perhaps wasn’t such a bad chap, not the “bottled spider” Shakespeare would have audiences believe. But struggling playwrights need to suck up to their patrons, especially royal ones, so he twisted the mind and body of the last York king from the Plantagenet dynasty to make Elizabeth Tudor’s lineage acceptable (her grandfather had forcefully seized power).
Even the real Richard’s skeleton, found under a Leicester parking lot in 2012, wasn’t the hunchbacked toad described and loathed throughout the text; he probably just had a case of roundworms and adolescent scoliosis.
The Gift Theatre’s co-founder and artistic director Michael Patrick Thornton fuels the titular role with his own spinal stroke, which left him with limited use of his limbs, much improved after working with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago who co-produced this production (originally programmed by the now-defunct Next Theatre).
Thornton plays Richard, under the direction of Jessica Thebus, as a wheelchair-bound puppet master, freezing the action by yelling “stop” – to get a bowl of wine, to engineer assassinations (including famously dispatching princes with pillows in the Tower), to appropriate women, to share his sordid soliloquies with his apparent co-conspirators, the audience – and activating his machinations into action again with “Nows,” notably into “Now is the winter of our discontent…”
He has psychological room to maneuver, as well as physical. The sparse set (designed by Jacqueline and Richard Penrod) has a tent flap and red fabric at the back (one of the few splashes of color in a mostly gray palette), with tree branches behind the audience seating.
Richard has red gloves to aid his roll from plot to plot and spot to spot, a red lap blanket to cover his weak legs (and to wipe off the contemptuous spit of Anne, Olivia Cygan, whom he woos over her husband he has killed), and a dead-pan delivery of his plans (not always effective–sometimes he seems just tired of the amount of planning regicide requires). He plays amidst a soundscape of outdoor noises by Kevin O’Donnell and Aaron Stephenson.
The ensemble is a homogeneous forest of gray, primarily period-less costumes designed by Sully Ratke and Cassandra Bowers. Everyone is barefoot, except for black-sneaker clad Richard, and all wear Elizabethan white ruff collars and pairs of pearl earrings. The men are bearded with close-shaved heads, which makes their executions easier, signified by blunt sticks (props by Michael Cotey and Rita Thornton), which are also used as jail bars, a bier (for Anne’s “set down, set down your honorable load” speech) and swords (excellent battle choreography by John Tovar).
With the help of modern, motorized leg braces, Richard finally rises when crowned after intermission, hissing and clicking as he slowly moves around, evoking a “RoboCop” sound, gait and wearied determination.
Witchy Margaret’s (fraught Shanesia Davis) spells begin to manifest as the many ghosts Richard has dispatched come to haunt him before the battle of Bosworth.
Elizabeth (strong Jenny Avery) weathers his gall at wooing her daughter after he murders most of her family. “Yet thou didst kill my children,” she admonishes.
“But in thy daughter’s womb I will bury them,” he replies. The audience, just like Richard’s former ally Richmond (energetic Gregory Fenner), has had just about enough of his amoral ambition.
The production “re-defines (dis)ability” as a mountebank on wheels, and delivers in a taut two-and-a-half hours. This Richard is the ur-Donald Trump – repellent to behold, lifeless legs for comb-over, withered hand for stubby fingers; audacious, unapologetic, self-serving agenda; monstrous misogyny; yet still winning. His crippled conscience is somehow buoyed by the carnage he’s created (perhaps the ghost of Chris Christie is also behind that curtain).
The electorate now awaits the tragic fall of The Donald, for life to imitate art.
Richard III runs through May 1, The Gift Theatre at Steppenwolf’s Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted St., Chicago. Tickets and information are available at 312-335-1650 and the Steppenwolf website.