Review: Seize the King Looks at Richard III as a Model for Tyrants Past and Present
Will Power's take on Shakespeare's notorious king is running at the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater.
"When he comes back will you be ready?"
That's the question we're asked near the end of Will Power's Seize the King, a modern take on Shakespeare's Richard III staged by the Classical Theatre of Harlem and now running at the outdoor Richard Rodgers Amphitheater. This Richard, played by Ro Boddie with a ruthless swagger despite the king's slight limp, acts as a stand-in for all the tyrants who hack their way through history generation after generation and yet catch people unawares every time. Director Carl Cofield knocks that message out of the park in a smart, razor-sharp production that surprisingly delivers as many laughs as gasps, thanks to its stellar cast.
Power's version of the Richard III story pares down Shakespeare's long play to a brisk 95 minutes, uses slang-infused dialogue, and makes several changes to the plot. But the essence of the original is there: With his eyes trained on the throne, Richard has one small obstacle in his way, his dead brother's 12-year-old son, Edward V (played with reserved charm by Alisha Espinosa). To carry out his murderous plan, he must marry Lady Anne (also Espinosa) for her property and money, and then get Edward's not-to-be-messed-with-mother, Queen Woodville (Andrea Patterson in a hilarious performance), to make him Edward's protector.
Meanwhile, Lord Buckingham (Carson Elrod) is complaining to Richard that foreigners ("those damned Irishmen") are taking all the jobs and ruining the country with their barbaric customs, so the two join forces in a quid pro quo. Richard supports Buckingham's anti-immigrant agenda in exchange for Buckingham's willingness to cut a throat, which he does to the meddlesome Hastings (a dynamic RJ Foster in one of several roles). Richard takes the throne, but holding on to it proves to be more difficult as the tide turns against him. Alas, there's no horse to be found.
Cofield keeps the action moving at a steady clip with short, well-paced scenes separated by interludes featuring five dancers whose movements often provide elegant, chorus-like commentary on the action (choreography by Tiffany Rea-Fisher). It all takes place on Christopher and Justin Swader's magnificent set, which looks like some hellish subterranean chamber flowing with electric lava (evocative lighting by Alan C. Edwards). But this chamber isn't located in one place; despite passing references to England and Tewksbury, Richard's world is a timeless, placeless pocket of history that could just as easily be 21st century America.
This rich intertwining of past and present swirls through the rest of the play like the backdrop of a Kehinde Wiley portrait. Actors wear modern dress with flourishes of other eras (costumes by Mika Eubanks), and Frederick Kennedy's eclectic music uses modern and classical-inspired melodies during the interludes to blur any sense of a definite time period, as does Power's language, which blends thees and thous with modern slang and references to sushi and Stairmasters. Some of it is over the top. He has an affinity for gross-out references to bodily functions, and his poetry often aspires to Bard-dom without coming close.
But the play gets its heft from its spot-on relevance, and the question that we're asked at the end seems more like its own answer. No, we won't be ready. We've been fooled too many times before.