Richard III

The Gift Theatre mounts its production of Shakespeare’s tale of a monster king.

Michael Patrick Thornton as the title character in the Gift Theatre production of Richard III, directed by Jessica Thebus, at Steppenwolf's Garage Theatre.
Michael Patrick Thornton as the title character in the Gift Theatre production of Richard III, directed by Jessica Thebus, at Steppenwolf's Garage Theatre.
(© Claire Demos)

William Shakespeare's Richard III is one of the funniest and most charming mass murderers in English literature. In order to gain the crown of England, the deformed "bunch-backed toad" slaughters men, women, and his own nephews with harrowing remorselessness and blackly humorous self-awareness. Richard knows full well that he's repugnant, born before his limbs were fully formed, a "monster" incapable of being loved. The most Richard can hope for isn't friendship or affection, it's power. And he'll do anything to get it. The plot is simple: Richard schemes and slaughters everyone that stands in his way of the crown. Once in charge, however, his reign is brief and disastrous, as soaked in blood as his was ascension.

With The Gift Theatre's staging of Richard III, Michael Patrick Thornton delivers a mesmerizing portrait of the monster king. He provides a Richard for the ages. Thornton will make your hair stand on end with Richard's ruthless brutality, and he will make you laugh out loud at his shiv-sharp, irreverent commentary about the world.

Thornton is a paraplegic, the result of two spinal strokes he survived over a decade ago. He wasn't supposed to live, much less return to his acting career. With Richard III, Thornton proves that he's not just a survivor, he's an actor of remarkable prowess. The fact that he can't walk under his own power isn't a hindrance, it's just part and parcel of a performance of roaring power and endless nuance. Director Jessica Thebus and Thornton have woven some Terminator-level scariness into Richard III. In his final hours, Richard becomes both superhuman and more inhuman. He's monster all right, a meld of gleaming metal and flesh and blood upright and towering over his enemies. Richard can be dangerously eloquent as well, as he is when wooing a woman whose husband and father he has just murdered.

Thebus' production hooks you from the start. Thornton is the lure into a world that's the color of ashes and pearls, spinning in his wheelchair with a purposefulness that makes you see (almost) the wheels spinning in his head as he strategizes his path to the crown. Richard is a puppet-master, stopping and starting the action with a brusque, barking commands.

The iconic scene between Richard and Lady Anne (Olivia Cygan, in a white-hot performance filled with rage, sorrow, and disbelief that Richard would seek to marry her after killing her husband and father) is stunning, and Thornton mesmerizes as he laboriously moves and pulls himself to his feet in a sinister exertion of power.

Thebus' blocking is similarly powerful. The climactic confrontation between Queen Elizabeth (Jennifer Avery, portraying a fiery-eyed force of anger before the man who killed her children) and Richard becomes a cat-and-mouse game of movement in an ingenious visual indication of Richard's increasingly perilous straits .

That peril hits home in Richard's final battle and the famous "my kingdom for a horse" passage. Thornton is thrown from his chair, and left crawling on the floor in a moment that captures the king's downfall with extraordinary vulnerability.

Not every performance is successful. As the prophetic Margaret, Shanesia Davis cackles like a Halloween witch. And as Richard's mother, Caroline Dodge Latta is more soap-operatic than sincere.

The physical production grounds the show with scenic designers Jacqueline and Richard Penrod's minimalist set of bare tree branches evoking grim destruction in a world the color of ashes and pearls. Sound designers Kevin O'Donnell and Aaron Stephenson create a soundscape of rattling wind, baying dogs, and distant armies marching ever closer. Sally Ratke's smoke-and-mist costume palette provides a ghostly version of Elizabethan garb.

While Richard III may have been an awful king, the Gift Theatre's production of Richard III is something wondrous.

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Richard III

Closed: May 1, 2016