“And thus I clothe my naked villany
With old odd ends stolen out of holy writ;
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.” — William Shakespeare, Richard III
Politics have always made strange bedfellows, and in the 15th century, King Richard III wrote the playbook on how to manipulate people for power and influence. He spent much of his life in the shadow of his older brother, Edward IV, until Edward’s untimely death in 1483. Edward’s son was a child at the time and, as history tells it, this is when Richard III saw his opportunity. He’s notoriously accused of locking his nephew in the Tower of London and murdering him in order to seize the crown. His two years of rule, until his death in 1485, were marked by tumult.
This epic scandal has inspired scribes for centuries and in Seize the King, on the Alliance Theatre’s Hertz Stage through March 8, playwright Will Power has retold the story with hip-hop beats, using the language of the streets. Power’s retelling is inspired by William Shakespeare’s Richard III and picks up the story after Edward IV is killed in the War of the Roses. Seize the King premiered at California’s La Jolla Playhouse in 2018 and chronicles Richard’s gangster-style rise to power as he steals, kills and manipulates his way to the crown.
The tragedy undoubtedly resonates today, yesterday and likely tomorrow as tyrannical rulers rise and fall in every corner of the globe. Here, Power weaves in the added layer of race with a cast comprising mostly people of color and smartly subtle references to the Black Lives Matter movement, immigration conflict at the southern border and the resurgence of white nationalism.
Five actors double in roles and play various historical figures, including Edward’s widow, the Queen of Woodville (Tangela Large); her trusted adviser Lord Hastings (Wigasi Brant); Lord Buckingham (Allan Edwards); Queen Anne and Edward V, the boy who would be king (Shakirah Demesier, doubling).
Travis Turner, seen in the Alliance’s Goodnight, Tyler (2019), plays the petty, slimy, vindictive Richard. Turner’s natural inclination is toward comedy, and he’s a highly physical actor. He plays Richard as a power-hungry little man with a bone to pick with everyone about everything. In asides, he’s like a politician trying to get the audience to vote for his coronation. However, Turner never seems to find a balance between silly and sincere. He makes a joke of his character, never finding Richard’s redeemable qualities, which make his motivations seem superficial.
Michael John Garcés, artistic director of Los Angeles’ Cornerstone Theater Company, directs the ensemble with varying degrees of success. An Act 1 scene between Richard and his brother’s widow is hard to look away from. Act 2 is much tighter than the first, and the scene when Richard puts on his coronation garment is very well-played. Yet overall it seems that Garcés was so busy trying to convey the meaning of the text that he forgot to fully develop its characters.
That said, Large and Edwards deliver noteworthy performances. Large’s voice seems made for the blend of rhythmic verse and iambic pentameter that Power has composed. Her Queen of Woodville is wicked, tantalizing and earnest as a mother on a mission. Edwards, always a formidable actor, is in rare form here as a villain. He’s the worst kind, too — he’ll be anyone he needs to be in order to align himself with power but never get his hands too dirty.
The design seems to live in a universe of its own. Nephelie Andonyadis’ set doesn’t provide any sense of place for the multiple locations it’s meant to represent. It’s a nondescript concrete box flanked by tile pillars in teal. It’s meant to resemble an underground sewer, mausoleum, the inside of the Tower of London? Sarita Fellows’ costumes live somewhere between steampunk and Star Trek, which works only for Richard’s transition to king and his tailors, whose clothing is undoubtedly inspired by longtime Vogue creative director Andre Leon Talley.
Powers’ Seize the King is well-written and a tragedy I’d like to see again; this staging suffers from too much high-concept. The work is fresh because in many ways Power has created a new classical text. The potential is there, but to quote another Shakespearean tragedy, it’s important to remember that “the play’s the thing.”