Michael Patrick Thornton powerful as formidable 'Richard III'

  • Michael Patrick Thornton plays the titular villain in The Gift Theatre/Steppenwolf Theatre production of William Shakespeare's "Richard III," supported in part by the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

    Michael Patrick Thornton plays the titular villain in The Gift Theatre/Steppenwolf Theatre production of William Shakespeare's "Richard III," supported in part by the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Courtesy of Claire Demos

  • Richard (Michael Patrick Thornton), left, plots with would-be assassins played by Martel Manning, second from right, and Jay Worthington in "Richard III" at the Steppenwolf Garage Theatre.

    Richard (Michael Patrick Thornton), left, plots with would-be assassins played by Martel Manning, second from right, and Jay Worthington in "Richard III" at the Steppenwolf Garage Theatre. Courtesy of Claire Demos

  • Richard (Michael Patrick Thornton) woos the newly widowed Lady Anne (Olivia Cygan) in William Shakespeare's historical tragedy, "Richard III." The co-production between The Gift and Steppenwolf theaters runs through May 1.

    Richard (Michael Patrick Thornton) woos the newly widowed Lady Anne (Olivia Cygan) in William Shakespeare's historical tragedy, "Richard III." The co-production between The Gift and Steppenwolf theaters runs through May 1. Courtesy of Claire Demos

  • Accompanied by his new wife, Anne (Olivia Cygan), the newly crowned Richard (Michael Patrick Thornton) begins his reign as "Richard III," in a production co-sponsored by the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

    Accompanied by his new wife, Anne (Olivia Cygan), the newly crowned Richard (Michael Patrick Thornton) begins his reign as "Richard III," in a production co-sponsored by the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Courtesy of Claire Demos

 
 
Updated 3/9/2016 11:57 AM

In the political realm, optics matter. That's true for the Republican presidential candidate who on Super Tuesday trumpeted his victories from the ballroom of a luxe, private club in Palm Beach, Florida, standing before a row of American flags against a pastel-lit backdrop.

And it's true for the "rudely stamped ... deformed, unfinished" Richard, the usurper king formidably played by Michael Patrick Thornton in The Gift and Steppenwolf Theatre's riveting, revelatory production of William Shakespeare's "Richard III."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Thornton uses a wheelchair, the result of paralyzing spinal strokes he suffered 13 years ago. And he spent months recuperating at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, which co-sponsored the production. But when his Richard accepts the crown on behalf of the House of York, he does so standing. Wearing a computerized, battery-operated robotic exoskeleton, Thornton's Richard walks past his cowering subjects toward his prize.

Talk about optics.

It's a powerful, authentic moment in director Jessica Thebus' bold, shrewdly conceived production, which trims some speeches and judiciously borrows others from "Richard III's" precursor, "Henry VI, Part 3." But an even more compelling moment occurs earlier, as Richard woos -- over the dead body of her father-in-law -- Lady Anne (Olivia Cygan), newly widowed wife of the Lancastrian prince defeated by the Yorkist forces. We watch as he struggles to rise from his wheelchair to stand behind a walker. We watch as this most eloquent, manipulative villain acts the part of a lover, inviting the distraught Anne into his embrace. For a split-second, when he raises his face, we glimpse vulnerability in his expression. Then it's gone, replaced by determination, for vulnerability equals weakness. Twisted as he is -- in body and soul -- Richard is not weak.

Richard -- whose bloody path to England's throne was strewn with the bodies of colleagues, kinsmen and children -- is all powerful. He is a conjurer disrupting dreams, a commander exercising absolute control, an assassin killing without conscience.

At six-foot-two, Thornton towers over his fellow actors. But his command of the stage comes from his focused, fearless performance. Less overtly menacing than other Richards, Thornton brings a commonplace cruelty and informal insolence to the role that makes his performance memorable. His Richard is almost clinical in the way he accomplishes his goals, as dispassionate as the wearable robotic that enables him to walk. Richard's subtlety makes the evil he does more terrible. His victims never see him coming. Neither do his accomplices, including the cunning Lord Buckingham (a smooth, calculating Keith Neagle) and the lithe, sinister Catesby (the always interesting Jay Worthington).

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Thornton's cool reserve contrasts nicely with the white-hot intensity of his adversaries, particularly the women. Shanesia Davis plays Margaret, the House of Lancaster's defeated queen, with breathtaking ferocity. Jennifer Avery is equally impassioned as the shrewd, avenging Elizabeth, whose young sons fall victim to Richard's ambition. Caroline Dodge Latta is more restrained but riveting as Richard's mother, who condemns him for the monster he is.

Adrian Danzig plays the anguished King Edward, who unwittingly falls for Richard's plots and sets in motion the execution of their brother Clarence (fine work by Thomas J. Cox), who is as compassionate as Richard is cruel.

Besides the exceptional acting, credit for this engaging production goes to Thebus' direction, which reflects the power of a pause. Thebus lets her actors dare to do nothing. It works.

The action unfolds on Jacqueline and Richard Penrod's almost bare set surrounded by tree branches bleached white. The branches -- and the weapons they supply -- resemble bones, a reminder of the casualties Richard has left both on the battlefield and within the castle.

One concern is the confusion that comes from actors playing multiple roles. In some cases, the costume changes are so minute it's difficult to distinguish one from the other. But that is a minor point in a production audiences won't soon forget.

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