In La Jolla Playhouse’s ‘Seize the King,’ Will Power puts his lyrical spin on Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’

Playwright Will Power (left) and director Jaime Castaneda of La Jolla Playhouse's production of "Seize The King."
(Eduardo Contreras / San Diego Union-Tribune)

In conceiving his contemporary reinterpretation of William Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” playwright Will Power imagined himself at a meeting of the minds, circa late 16th century.

“We associate ‘Richard III’ (written between 1592 and 1594) with Shakespeare, but there were other versions of it at that time,” said Power, whose new play “Seize the King” will have its world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse beginning with previews on Tuesday, Aug. 21. “I thought, if I was hanging out with (Christopher) Marlowe and Shakespeare, what would be my take on it?”

For the award-winning playwright roundly credited with the development and popularity of hip-hop theater, the answer lay in Power’s singular use of language.

“What this was about for me, as a guy who is into poeticism and lyricism and who is also a playwright going back into not only an ancient story but an ancient form, is infusing ‘Richard III’ with new dialogue.”

Power began with the “ancient poetic structure” of iambic pentameter, in which Shakespeare’s works are written. From there, “It was crazy to get into it,” he recalled of a writing process that to his surprise came together relatively quickly. “Once you live in that rhythmic structure, the lines start coming out a lot more organically. While I was writing this, I was also reading other pieces about this structure, and you start writing organically in that rhythm. It’s like hip-hop. With hip-hop, it’s four beats a measure, and once you understand that, you can improvise.”

The improvisation came in Power’s incorporating his own lyrical style, resulting in a tighter, higher-energy, more urgent “Richard III” for the 21st century.

“Shakespeare wrote for his time. Today we write for our time.”

Good vs. evil

Power’s take on one of Shakespeare’s most complex plays was also propelled by today’s sociopolitical climate.

“This particular story emerged in these times, in the last 12 to 15 months,” Power explained. “No matter what you believe politically, it’s a very polarizing time, a very extreme time, a time pushing us to ask big questions.

“I needed a story that builds with big questions of good and bad, good and evil, heaven and hell. This play, particularly my adaptation, looks at what is the core of man. I like to think that the core of human beings is a good core, but what if it isn’t? What if our core is a rotten-apple core? I try to emphasize both. We have such a beautiful, divine aspect in us, but we also have these horrific things. Those are constantly battling.”

Indeed an overarching theme of Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” with the deformed and dangerously ambitious Richard seeking the throne of England, is the clash between good and evil.

“Before I started writing this piece,” Power recalled, “I’d been in these conversations, and someone was like, ‘Someone ought to do something on ‘Richard III.’ I feel like that, for me, that was a sign.”

The next serendipitous moment came via Jaime Castañeda, La Jolla Playhouse’s associate artistic director and now the director of “Seize the King.”

“I’ve known Will for many years,” Castañeda said. “I knew of his work 15, 20 years ago when he first came out of the gates. About a year and a half ago, I reached out to him and said, ‘What are you working on right now?’ He told me was in the middle of writing his riff on ‘Richard III.’ This was one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. I said send it over when you’re finished with it.”

Two weeks later, Castañeda received a full draft of ‘Seize the King.”

“I read it right away,” Castañeda said. “We programmed it about a week after that.”

“Seize the King” is Power’s third production to be staged at La Jolla Playhouse. His play “The Seven,” an adaptation of Aeschylus’ Greek tragedy “Seven Against Thebes,” directed by Jo Bonney, ran 10 years ago in the same Potiker Theatre in which “Seize the King” will be presented. Power’s children’s work — “Honey Bo and the Goldmine” — was commissioned by the Playhouse for its 2007 Performance Outreach Program Tour.

Castañeda called “Seize the King,” which will be presented in the round and with original music during transitions by drummer Richard Sellers, “its own stand-alone Richard III” story.

“What attracted me to the play was Richard was a devilish kind of charming, yet a con man who is a grand negotiator. Seeing him navigate his way to the throne is exciting. The story felt urgent in terms of leadership and in terms of what’s happening in the world. Right now, we’re living in that. Will interpreted it with his voice.”

Jesse Perez, who’s been involved in the play since its first workshopping in New York, stars as Richard, with the remainder of the five-person cast playing multiple roles.

“It’s been exciting for me and the cast to make sense of what’s in Will’s mind,” Castañeda said. “He’s pretty rare as a contemporary writer to be able to take this on in the way he does: taking this old story and making it new — mashing up contemporary language with words from different centuries and creating his own kind of rhythms that are specific to Will Power.”

For his part, Power hopes that “Seize the King” leads to important discussions.

“I really want us to have a frank, candid conversation and exploration about who we are as a nation, who we want to be, as families and cultures and individuals, and finally, to have a conversation about humanity.

“As a writer, it’s not always about having answers, but about having deep, nuanced, authentic conversations with the audience.”

“Seize The King”

When: Previews 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday. Opens 7 p.m. Aug. 26. Continues 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Sept. 16.

Where: Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla

Tickets: $41 and up

Phone: (858) 550-1010


Coddon is a freelance writer.