By Karen Kenyon
If you come to Will Power’s reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s Richard III at La Jolla Playhouse expecting to hear that line about the winter of our discontent, or at the end of the play hoping to watch Richard stumble around the battle of Bosworth Field, crying for his horse, you will not find it in Seize the King.
But you will find a powerful tale of a contemporary Richard, lusting for his own power, lacking a conscience, and spouting his lines in a modern iambic pentameter, tinged with hip-hop. Will Power, the playwright of the piece, is partially responsible for the development and popularity of hip-hop theater.
This production happens in a theatre-in-the-round arrangement at the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre. The center stage is a glass and metal grid of a floor. Beneath one of the squares of the grid lies a shrouded figure which disappears at a later point in the production. This intriguing presence may be Edward, Richard’s dying brother, or could it be the representation of the spirit of the real Richard, whose bones were found only a few years ago beneath a parking lot in Leicester, England? Perhaps it is a metaphor to explore and be threaded throughout this production.
House lights are dimmed and the production begins with stunning and startling fierce drumming, provided and performed by Richard Sellers, a San Diego virtuoso jazz drummer. He and his cadre of drums and cymbals perch elevated in a cube of light and come to life periodically throughout the production as scenes and moods change.
In Shakespeare’s tale, fifty-two actors typically act out the tale of Richard III, while in this reinterpretation only 5 actors play 21 roles and parse out this archetypal tale of corruption and greed.
Only Jesse J. Perez inhabits just one role, and that is Richard. Saida Arrika Ekulona, Jennifer Zheng, Luis Vega, and Julian Parker perform the other roles, including Queen Woodville, Lord Buckingham, Lord Hastings, and Anne Neville, Richard’s wife.
Several components speak of today, and not of the 1500 -1600s, including the multiracial casting and use of modern words, woven in with others from the past—for example, the Barrio, Sushi, Mother Theresa, and Fat Albert!
Playwright Power admits in an interview with Shirley Fisher, dramaturge of the production that the idea of Richard III came to him ”shortly after Trump became President. I talked to a few people from different cultures across the country about our political climate. A number of them brought up Richard III saying someone should take a look at it. …..so I thought I’d explore it.”
Notably, part of Power’s exploration led him to dissect Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter and create his own lines in that form. “To do so,” he says, “I had to imagine myself as an Elizabethan poet…even though I was working with an old-school structure I was bringing new things to it. My head was buzzing”. He also adds “…I explored how self-righteousness, greed, and lust for power can lead to tyranny.”
Certain lines and phrases do seem to cast a strong reference on today. Lord Buckingham (Julian Parker), says “Immigrants invade while we sit jobless.” Richard (Perez) says “A difference there is between not the whole truth and a lie.”
In this retelling, Richard is not burdened with a twisted spine or any obvious infirmity, yet his ambitions seem somehow rooted in that he considers himself less than loved or desirable. But his evil seems more in the vein of Shakespeare’s villain Iago from Othello.
According to Power, “Here, I’m trying to ask, ‘What is the honest truth, not just of Richard III, Trump, or America, but of humanity at large.”
He felt the story had an urgency he could not avoid, and hopes Seize the King will lead to important discussions.
To perhaps add to or broaden the discussion an audience member might even take a look at some point, at the 1996 documentary, Looking for Richard, in which Al Pacino explores the relevance of Shakespeare and the retelling of the story of Richard III, as he (Pacino) prepares for a production of the play in Central Park.
Perhaps an underlying current of hope is buried under the stage, as in the shrouded figure. There is hope when artists and poets begin to speak out and create art from chaos.
Making these connections from various eras can bring our human dilemmas, darkness, and foibles to light.
Seize the King is directed by Jaime Castaneda, and will run until September 16 at the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse 858-550-1010