The word escapes Michael Patrick Thornton lips and instantly pierces the hum of congenial conversation between the actors. The party stops instantly, each actor freezing entirely, even mid-kiss. Mr. Thornton alone remains operational. Slowly, deliberately he begins to roll his wheelchair forward, surveying the audience like the most patient of predators. As he moves between his colleagues, the other players in his court, his eyes flash a subtle mixture of grim delight and sneering disgust. “Now is the winter of our discontent,” he begins, choosing a single audience member to direct each line to. This is a Richard III devoid of any shred of compassion or remorse that Shakespeare may have allowed for. This is not a Richard we are meant to pity. This is a Richard we are meant to fear.
He bellows at the culmination of his speech. The word shatters the stillness in the air as the other actors take a collective breath of life. Reanimated and yet blissfully unaware of the snake in their garden, we watch helplessly as Thornton’s sickly sweet, highly sociopathic Richard III begins to swat them like flies.
Part of the Shakespeare 400 celebration, The Gift Theatre’s production of Richard III at Steppenwolf runs until May 1st. One of the wonderful things about Shakespeare 400 is that it is providing a venue for the plethora of theater-makers in Chicago to tell each of their own individual stories through the Bard’s timeless work. Mr. Thornton, co-founder and artistic director of the Gift, is quite remarkable in his performance. Having suffered a spinal stroke that initially paralyzed in 2003, he has worked his way back to general wheelchair mobility and even some vertical mobility. He founded the Gift theatre to provide opportunities for disabled actors.
Yet, unlike most renditions of the murderous king, Mr. Thornton’s Richard is not defined by his illness. Despite his actual disability, he plays a Richard who does not lend himself to pity. Showing no fear of audience interaction, Thornton often chooses to deliver his lines very deliberately to individual spectators. He shows himself to be a social chameleon, winning over an unsuspecting Elizabeth, played by Jenny Avery, with an innocuous grin. He manipulates Kieth Neagle, who turns in a slimy yet imposing Buckingham by seeming like the picture of an honest partner in crime. Yet, when it comes time to betray both, he assumes a look of the most pitiless apathy.
In a play that centers around Richard’s transformation, told through a string of brief and often one sided interactions with supporting characters, there are some pitfalls of a sociopathic protagonist. He becomes more one-dimensional, ending the play in more or less the same mind set as he starts it. Some scenes feel irrelevant, like a rehashing of what we already know about him: he doesn’t care about killing people.
This was counteracted by frequent, mid-scene calls of “STOP”, in which Mr. Thornton would deliver a monologue spliced together from elsewhere in the show. Rather than see an actor tell the story of Richard III, it becomes an actor playing a character who is telling us the story directly. Though at times this is quite effective, at times it feels gimmicky. Regardless, Mr. Thornton is a remarkable talent. Though he suffers from a real-world disability, he puts on a performance that is not defined by it. It would have been easy for him to act as though Richard’s story was his own, and to make the play entirely about the way disabled people are treated. But The Gift Theatre’s work is far more potent than that. It creates opportunities for disabled actors to perform independent of their conditions, not to showcase them. Thornton achieves this in full, his disability coming second to his performance, and thereby truly escaping the confines of the real world by way of his art.