Thorn­ton con­nects with ‘ Richard III’ on a most per­sonal level

Chicago Sun-Times - - ENTERTAINMENT - BY MARY HOULI­HAN Mary Houli­han is a lo­cal free­lance writer. For the Sun- Times

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.”

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