Shakespeare’s “Richard III” has the unique ability to offer a glimpse into the lives of the disenfranchised, and a rich tradition of squandering that potential on the preferred players of the Elizabethan era, and beyond: Able-bodied white males. Outfit your finest actor with an exaggerated costume hump and voilà! The average theater is ready to hang a ‘mission accomplished’ banner over the box office.  

It’s a rare, powerful thing to experience an authentic difference in ability in the titular Richard, or to see the disparaging remarks levied on him by friends and enemies directed to an actor that may have a passing familiarity. Rare and powerful is exactly how I’d describe The Gift Theatre’s “Richard III”. This production does more than entertain, it empowers us to demand more representation of long under-represented artists from the theater we see.

In “Richard III”, after his brother Edward (Adrian Danzig) is crowned in a glorious festival, disfigured (in this case: wheelchair bound) Richard (Michael Patrick Thornton) watches patiently and hides behind a pious, dutiful façade. We alone are his confidants as he reveals his true intention to usurp the throne, and in time-stopping asides, his ability to size up (or dispatch with) anyone who would obstruct his path.

He plots the demise and defamation of his brothers, Edward, George, Duke of Clarence (Thomas J. Cox), the widowed Elizabeth (Jenny Avery) and her sons (Hannah Toriumi & Brittany Burch), his mother Duchess of York (Caroline Latta), and his wife (Olivia Cygan), whom he bullies into marriage, then murders in record time. He is aided by sycophants like Buckingham (Keith Neagle), prophesied against by the unhinged former queen Margaret (Shanesia Davis), and goes to battle not only against the honorable Richmond (Gregory Fenner), but against leagues of restless ghosts that threaten to instill a conscience in the morally bankrupt king.  

Director Jessica Thebus stages a minimal, modern-flavored production that invites you to draw current political and social parallels. In an unnerving way, it plays on the impulses of an impatient and well-meaning audience. In moments that go on just a little too long, and are punctuated only by rustling and shifting, an unconscious thought creeps over the faces of able-bodied audience members: Will Richard make it to his feet? Will we be able to catch him if he falls? Hardly necessary. The ever-dignified Richard rarely lets his compatriots see him in need, and he is outfitted for his coronation with the fine technology from The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, keeping him at eye-level.

Range of moment and slowness of time play an interesting part of The Gift’s production; when Richard begins, he effectively stops time with every ‘aside’ to the audience, and drives circles around his abled-bodied adversaries. However, when he transitions to the crown and walks upright with mechanical assistance, cracks in his facade begin to form. His plots against his adversaries are less effective, and his command of time fades as he inches closer to a wartime present.  

Michael Patrick Thornton is a strange wonder as Richard, never letting the smile fall from his public face, except to show us the slights that he has deemed worthy of murder most quick and dirty. A footstool and two clacking birch branches serve as his very effective guillotine. Equally as magnetic and frightful are Olivia Cygan, Shanesia Davis and Jenny Avery as the royal women unseated by Richard. They can sense the dark nature in the man in the chair, but are forced to hold their tongues to keep their heads.

Come prepared to be disturbed and unnerved, at least in part, by what may be your own built in prejudices.  

“Richard III” is a darkly comic drama appropriate for teens and adults; tickets are available through May 10th.

The Show: Richard III

Venue: Steppenwolf’s Merle Reskin Garage Theatre (1624 N. Halsted St.)



You can find Sean Margaret on Twitter: @SMargaretWagner