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PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Local actor Debbie Patterson, who has multiple sclerosis, plays Richard III.</p>


Local actor Debbie Patterson, who has multiple sclerosis, plays Richard III.

Subtitled on its poster as "a disability revenge play," the Shakespeare in the Ruins' production of Richard III casts Winnipeg actor Debbie Patterson as Richard, a physically misshapen royal scion employed as a secret weapon in the battle between the Lancaster and York families.

Directed by Christopher Brauer, this iteration of Richard is the first in Canada (and possibly the first anywhere) to cast a disabled actor as the disabled monarch. Patterson, a longtime member of the SIR troupe, has been living with multiple sclerosis for years. The canes she employs to walk in the play are her own.

Hence, Patterson is not obliged to "crip up" for the role as an able-bodied actor might. She plays the hunchbacked king straight up, "determined to prove a villain" upon the coronation of Edward IV (Arne MacPherson) to divide and conquer the royal house.

Typically, Richard has been presented with the understanding that the twistedness of his physical form ("cheated of feature by dissembling nature") is a manifestation of a twisted morality. Brauer reverses that premise, proceeding under the assumption that Richard has always been treated as the family attack dog, and his subsequent fiendish machinations represent a lashing-out at his family for, if nothing else, fatally underestimating him.

Subtly altering Richard's motivations engenders some sympathy for this devil. But a devil, he still remains, and Patterson relishes portraying Richard's exuberant knavery as addressed directly to the audience. See Richard astonished at his own powers of persuasion when he successfully courts Anne (Toni Reimer) — though he himself killed both Anne's husband and her father-in-law. See him comfort his Tower of London-bound brother Clarence (Andrew Cecon) in one scene, only to heartlessly engineer his murder later. See Patterson's face light up upon Richard's discovery of a confederate in the treacherous Buckingham (a slick Omar Alex Khan) in a display of conspiratorial glee.

Of course, "conspiratorial glee" is the operating premise of Shakespeare in the Ruins as audience members are obliged to move from place to place in the sprawling brick shell structure of St. Norbert's Trappist Monastery in the theatre's "promenade" style of performance. It creates a certain sense of camaraderie between audience and cast, ideally. This reviewer did hear one or two muttered complaints opening night, which was a little rich given the admirable way Patterson powered her way through the show with nary a sign of diminished energy. (Ever tried navigating a wheelchair over gravel?)

Patterson has solid support, with others in the cast doing double- or triple-duty, notably Andrew Cecon (murdered twice as both Clarence and Rivers), Sarah Constible (icily officious as Hastings, and homicidally ingratiating as the hired killer Ratcliff) and Tracey Nepinak as the deposed queen Margaret, imperious and bloodthirsty. Cherissa Richards makes the dramatic most of the tragedy-prone Queen Elizabeth, and much of the comic relief falls on the capable shoulders of Toby Hughes, who plays Richard's emissary Catesby, for example, with a subtle underlay of the wilfully clueless corporate functionary.

Richard III is the second-longest of Shakespeare's plays, after Hamlet, but this production fares fine with a judicious trim that runs roughly two-and-a-half hours with intermission.

Bring a sweater. As with the play's abundant treachery, the evenings can elicit a chill.


Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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