Michael Patrick Thornton and Kenny Mihlfried Credit: Claire Demos

Among his other skills, William Shakespeare was a most splendid ass kisser, and Richard III—offered now in an exhilaratingly subversive production from the Gift Theatre—is one of his greatest works in the lips-to-butt genre.

The Bard’s queen, Elizabeth I, was the granddaughter of Henry Tudor, who became King Henry VII by leading a rebellion that ended with Richard III getting his head stoved in at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. He therefore puckered up and delivered a play depicting Richard as evil incarnate: Macbeth with a harder heart, Iago with a nobleman’s resources, Lear‘s Edmund with smoother pickup lines. A man who needed to be stopped.

Shakespeare’s Richard is a sociopathic master conniver, happy to do whatever mischief is required to achieve the throne. He engineers the imprisonment and murder of multiple relatives, including a pair of children, and doesn’t in the least mind sleeping his way to the top. One legendary scene has him approach Lady Anne Neville as she walks behind the body of her father-in-law, King Henry VI, whom Richard murdered along with her husband, Edward. Although she calls him everything from “devil” to “hedgehog,” Richard works Anne with such a deft combination of compliments, lies, bribes, and bold-faced candor that she ends up accepting his proposal of marriage.

This is one breathtakingly despicable guy. And the emblem of his moral monstrousness, in the play, is his physical deformity.

As the 2012 discovery of his lost bones, buried under an English parking lot, confirmed, Richard suffered from scoliosis—curvature of the spine. It doesn’t seem to have been that big a deal in real life; researchers say that, although it reduced his height, the condition could be hidden with well-tailored clothes and didn’t prevent Richard from walking normally. Or swinging a sword, for that matter. Yet Shakespeare seizes on it as the outer mark of inner ugliness. Indeed, Richard himself invokes it as the source of his rottenness, right there in act one, scene one: “I, that am . . . Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time / Into this breathing world, scarce half made up, / And that so lamely and unfashionable/ That dogs bark at me as I halt by them . . . I am determined to prove a villain.”

What, then, does Michael Patrick Thornton mean by playing a figure who so thoroughly embodies dark notions associated with physical disability, when he lives with a disability of his own, having lost the use of his legs as a result of strokes suffered 13 years ago? Based on the evidence, I’d say he means to mess with those notions, and succeeds rather brilliantly at it too.

Not that he ever shows us a nice Richard. True to Shakespeare’s intent, this version is ever and always implacable in pursuit of power. But in Jessica Thebus‘s staging, Thornton exploits the challenges posed by his infirmity to at once heighten, deepen, and transform Richard’s war on humanity. Now we see him in his wheelchair, oblivious to disadvantage as—using matter-of-fact, Chicago-inflected tones—he deploys his stratagems. Now he’s making the long, tedious, apparently painful transition from wheelchair to walker, to advance his wooing of Lady Anne. (And encircling her with him in the walker’s circle when the wooing is complete.) Now, strapped into a motorized “robotic exoskeleton” that gives him the look and intermittent whirring sound of an automaton out of some moody sci-fi comic, he walks on two feet before a troop of soldiers.

Each image yields its own paradox, its own coupling of helplessness and power. Thanks to Thornton’s unsentimental use of his paralysis, even Richard’s robotic uber-mensch mode carries an undercurrent of desperation. We’re somehow not surprised that this intriguer is capable of stopping and starting scenes at will, yet we’re also aware that none of his powers can do him a bit of good.

Thebus has put together an ensemble of exceedingly fine actors—Adrian Danzig, Shanésia Davis, Thomas J. Cox, and Olivia Cygan, among others—to support Thornton. But with the exception of Cygan, moving from ferocity to a kind of erotic submission as Lady Anne, they don’t and can’t make much of a mark. Thornton is the magnetic center of this show.  v