THE KING AND I
Thornton connects with ‘ Richard III’ on a most personal level
Richard III is one of the most powerful and difficult roles in the Shakespearean canon. Actor Michael Patrick Thornton is discovering just how difficult as he readies the role for Gift Theatre’s staging of the historical drama which is part of the Shakespeare 400 celebration. Thornton is taking the role into a different dimension than most actors.
Thirteen years ago, Thornton, co- founder and artistic director of Gift, suffered two spinal strokes that left him paralyzed from the neck down. It was a long road back filled with challenging rehab before his return to the stage in 2006 in Conor McPherson’s “The Good Thief,” a one- man show about an Irish thug that won Thornton rave reviews. In recent years, Thornton has found great success in the director’s chair with the occasional foray into acting.
Thornton, who can use a walker but mostly gets around in a wheelchair, says he can connect to the lame, hunchback Richard in the usual actor ways, but there is one aspect of portraying him that clearly hits close to home— Richard’s disability is a driving factor in his machinations to seize the English throne and assure his place in history.
“Richard is very scary and very intimidating in terms of his anger and fury at being an outsider, of being consigned to this fate based on these preconceptions of what a disability means,” Thornton says. “It’s fascinating in terms of the lengths he’s willing to go to be seen, to be recognized.”
With help from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago ( RIC), The Gift production aims to redefine what disability, and what Shakespeare’s infamous villain, can look like. Thornton is interested in the “intersection between disability and politics” ( think FDR). “I’ll be moving differently than people are used to seeing me,” he says, adding that he wants to keep the “new technology” a surprise.
Richard’s opening speech, in which he lays out his treacherous plan, quickly uncovers his mindset, says the show’s director, Jessica Thebus.
“He’s furious with God and the world because of the differences between his body and other people’s bodies,” Thebus says. “As he says, ‘ Since I cannot prove a lover . . . I am determined to prove a villain.’ So we are looking at the ways in which his fury and physicality develop through the story by working with RIC and using everything from a walker and wheelchair to more cutting technologies.”
Thornton sees Richard as someone who “comes out of the farthest recesses of the castle” where he developed “an impeccably specific and multifaceted imagination that created an interior fantasy world that migrates out into the world where England becomes his playpen.”
Thornton can relate: “As a disabled person, you have to enter society, whether it’s the entertainment business or something else you have to elbow your way into because you’re actively not going to be seen. I certainly understand why he sets up all these possibilities for himself.”
Michael Patrick Thornton stars as the title character in Gift Theatre’s production of “Richard III.”