Review: Stark and visceral ‘Seize the King’ remixes ‘Richard’ with mixed results


A decade ago at La Jolla Playhouse, Will Power memorably put a hip-hop charge into Greek tragedy with “The Seven.” Now comes the playwright’s often caustic take on Shakespeare: “The Five.”

That’s not the actual name of Power’s just-opened world-premiere Playhouse piece, titled “Seize the King.” But the fact this adaptation of (or perhaps response to) “Richard III” has a cast of just five actors playing 21 people — where the Shakespeare original has 50-plus characters — gets at how lean and mean its storytelling style is.

Power, a pioneer of hip-hop theater, has a forceful and distinctive dramatic voice, and with “Seize the King” he deploys it in the service of a deconstruction so complete it can be hard to recognize Shakespeare in the result.

That’s of course a perfectly valid theatrical strategy, one the Bard himself — that champion of reconceiving and repurposing existing work — might’ve applauded.

But I didn’t leave the bristling, compact and highly contemporized “Seize the King” feeling that the piece necessarily gained more impact or timeliness by setting aside Shakespeare’s language in favor of modern slang like “sloppy seconds,” or having characters make jokes about people eating sushi with a fork.

Power’s writing possesses a gritty poetry all its own, but it can feel here as if he’s pushing a bit too hard to place the grasping, rapacious and morality-free Richard in the here and now, when Shakespeare already did much of the heavy lifting for us back in the 1590s by creating the vivid model of a cretinous leader for all time.

It seems clear, though, that Power had an acute political aim in mind by bringing England’s 15th-century King Richard III — played with prickly wit by Jesse J. Perez — into the modern age. And he might’ve felt that the story’s of-the-moment aspects simply cried out to be underlined.

In the first scene of the 95-minute, no-intermission show, Power has a one-man chorus lamenting the capacity of evil “always to trump virtue / As old black-minded kings of long ago / Resurface in the twisted faces of / Today’s emperors and empresses.”

Later, the scurrilously ambitious Richard has his confidant Lord Buckingham (Julian Parker, a standout in this role and others) fire up a crowd with such lines as: “Immigrants invade while we sit jobless.” And on opening night, the show earned its biggest laugh when Richard said: “A difference there is between not the whole truth and a lie.”

Director (and soon-to-depart Playhouse associate artistic chief) Jaime Castañeda’s admirably diverse cast makes an art of versatility: All play multiple roles except Perez, who brings an off-kilter magnetism to Richard.

Along with the gifted Parker, Saidah Arrika Ekulona is steely and funny as Queen Woodville (aka Elizabeth); Luis Vega makes for a noble and high-minded but agonized Lord Hastings, who becomes Richard’s foe; and Jenapher Zheng lends the young would-be king Edward V a wisdom beyond his years, as well as playing Richard’s wife, Anne Neville, with a cool resolve. (Anne also gets some of costume designer Emilio Sosa’s splashiest outfits.)

Power sharply pares down and reorders events from both Shakespeare and the saga of the real-life Richard — curiously placing his pursuit of Anne after the death of his brother King Edward IV (Elizabeth’s husband and young Edward’s dad). By that time, Richard and Anne actually had been married more than a decade.

He also has Richard describe Anne’s appearance in graphically unflattering terms, as if in some weird burlesque of Richard’s praise of her in Shakespeare as the “divine perfection of a woman.” (Richard’s words throughout the play are at times almost perversely ugly.)

“Seize the King” essentially cuts out Edward V’s younger brother, who was eventually imprisoned in the tower with him, in favor of Richard’s fixation on making sure Edward never becomes king.

And while Richard is typically described as hunchbacked, Perez plays him with no visible infirmity. Elizabeth, though, suggests his real disability is an impotence that actually “unpopulates, the opposite of the purpose.” (The real-life Richard — whose remains incredibly were rediscovered beneath a parking lot in 2012 — indeed left no lasting royal lineage but plenty of dead bodies.)

Richard Sellers’ ominous, thrumming percussion from a drum riser in one corner of the Potiker Theatre injects a mood of deep foreboding, and Lauren Helpern’s glass-floored stage suggests the frail barrier the characters tread between life and death.

The drop-down mic that Richard speaks into near play’s end also heightens the feeling of an arena cage match — fitting for Power’s words of warning from the final scene:

“When he comes back, will thou be ready / Ready to battle, or ready to fold?”

“Seize the King”

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-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


Twitter: @jimhebert