Chicago Theatre Review
The Winter of Our Discontent
Richard III – Gift Theatre
A somber young man sits alone, bemoaning this “winter of our discontent,” criticizing and scorning his brother’s accession to the throne. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, sees only himself as the true and rightful King of England, not his brother Edward IV. In fact, as Richard festers inside, he’s begun plotting to insure that his rise to power will happen unimpeded by enemies, friends or family. Richard confesses that he’s “determined to prove a villain” as he schemes to have his brother Clarence, next in line for the crown, conducted to the Tower of London. But this is only the beginning of Richard’s heartless, bloody path to become the King.
Shakespeare’s history play, thought to be written in the late 1500’s, is his second longest (after “Hamlet”). It swiftly moves through the poisonous events that propel Gloucester’s meteoric rise to power. He proves himself over and over again to be just as cruel, callous and cold-blooded as legend has painted him. Richard is a villain and there’s little remorse felt for him when he gets his just desserts in the final moments of this tragic and violent drama.
However, in the Gift Theatre’s remarkable contemporary production, directed with style, grit and humor by Jessica Thebus, Richard isn’t portrayed as the ugly hunchback of legend. This man-who-would-be-king is played with stunning valor and bravado by the Gift’s Artistic Director, Michael Patrick Thornton. The accomplished actor/director who, years ago, suffered a spinal stroke that left him paralyzed, has worked long and hard with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago to regain some of his mobility. Thornton’s Richard III isn’t “rudely stamp’d” by a hump on his shoulder; he, too, has survived an affliction that’s placed him in a wheelchair. But Mr. Thornton uses his own physical handicap as a true extension of his character.
Mostly Richard is confined to his wheelchair, in which this man, who’s able to stop and restart the play at will, can maneuver and observe his subjects. At the top of Act II, however, Richard rises from his chair for his coronation. In this breathtaking moment, Thornton is outfitted with the RIC’s remarkable ReWalk Robotic exoskeleton. In one of this production’s many overwhelming moments, Richard strides majestically across the full length of the stage to receive his crown, his noble head higher than all his subjects. In another powerful scene that borders on frightening, Richard, who has risen from his chair, uses his walker to ensnare and imprison Lady Anne next to him, forcing her to marry. And in the final moments of this extraordinary production, the wheelchair bound Richard falls from his vehicle, crying for “A horse, a horse…” and then quietly, almost introspectively, “…my kingdom for a horse.” As this evil, dethroned man lies helpless on the ground he meets his doom at the hands of the Earl of Richmond, who’ll soon become King Henry VII.
Jessica Thebus’ astounding production is filled with visuals and sounds, such as these, that won’t soon be forgotten. While Mr. Thornton dominates this production, rarely offstage for very long, his supporting cast is equally as talented and commanding, most playing multiple roles. Some terrific performances are turned in by Jenny Avery as Elizabeth, Olivia Cygan as Anne, Shanesia Davis as Margaret, Hannah Toriumi and Brittany Burch as the young Princes Edward and York and Caroline Dodge Latta as the Duchess. Other fantastic performances come from Gregory Fenner as Richmond, John Kelly Connolly as Brakenbury, Thomas J. Cox as Clarence, Adrian Danzig as King Edward, Keith Neagle as Buckingham, Jay Worthington as Catesby and Kyle Zornes as Hastings.
This is truly an arresting, monumental production to open the Gift’s 15th season. It’s a production that makes Shakespeare’s sixteenth century history drama feel particularly contemporary and accessible. Staged almost entirely in-the-round by Jessica Thebus, the production is surrounded by a wintery forest of discontent by Jacqueline and Richard Penrod, and painted with a thundering palette of sound designed by Kevin O’Donnell and Aaron Stephenson. With strong performances by Ms. Thebus’ large, talented cast, it’s Michael Patrick Thornton’s realistic, heartfelt portrayal of Richard, however, that is the real reason to see and admire this wonderful production.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented March 3-May 1 by the Gift Theatre at the Steppenwolf Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the Steppenwolf box office at 312-335-1650 or by going to www.steppenwolf.org.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com