There are few names that instantly bring to mind a ruthless, scheming sort of greed, someone for whom there is no act too low, than the name of King Richard III of England. In SEIZE THE KING, the new play at the La Jolla Playhouse by Will Power, Richard and his machinations are moved to a sharp and modern setting proving that man’s ambitions remain the same no matter their era or location.
Shakespeare’s version opens with Richard wooing Anne Neville over the body of her dead husband, a man that Richard himself killed. That he does this successfully is a sure sign of the depths of treachery, and ruthlessness that we will continue to see from Richard. In this version, it opens with an impactful percussion performance from Richard Sellers, which sets this play up with an energetic if ominous feeling of what is yet to play out.
Richard’s (Jesse. J. Perez) opening lines proclaim that evil will “always trump virtue”, and then he sets out to prove his point. The ambitious Richard convinces Lord Buckingham (Julian Parker) that Richard as Lord Protector of the young Edward (Jenapher Zheng) will be best for everyone. Buckingham bemoans that “immigrants invade while we sit jobless,” a fact the wily Richard promises to rectify as soon as he has the power to do so.
Richard’s main opponents to his quest are Edward’s mother, Queen Woodville (Saidah Arrika Ekulona), and Lord Hasting (Luis Vega). Both who are both confident the Queen can protect her son and help rule the country until he reaches his majority; and so the battle of wits and blood beings.
Richard has a reluctant Anne (Jenapher Zheng) to woo (though in a different order than is historically accurate), an inconsistent Buckingham to deal with, and that pesky heir to the throne to take care of in order to get to his ultimate prize, the throne to England.
Perez plays Richard with a sly humor, and though he never proclaims outright “I am determined to prove a villain”, his understanding and ease with what steps he must take to secure his goal proves it nonetheless. Towards the end of the show he speaks directly to the audience with energy and intensity, asking if we would be ready to step up when an evil like this shows its face once more.
Parker is excellent as Buckingham, and brings some wonderful humor to the piece in his turn as the gardener. Vega is unfaltering as the noble Hastings, Ekulona is formidable as Elizabeth, and Zheng admirably tackles the opposites as the pre-teen Edward and Richard’s headstrong bride Anne.
The set by Lauren Helperin shows the fragile foundation on which they all walk with a glass floor. The body underneath (presumably the late king) shows just how much they all walk over their own family and legacy as they battle. Lighting by Tyler Micoleau is atmospheric, and has it’s own surprise in store for the audience as well. Costumes by Emilio Sosa are equally as streamlined, with some lovely coats for the men, and a standout outfit for Anne.
Though not set in the past, this play with modern language and reference to modern places like strip malls, it can feel like this show could be set at any modern time, or even a dystopian one in the future. The language is at times graphic, with lots of cursing and ugly descriptions of each other, but it feels like it is working a bit too hard to really feel integrated.
Power’s play chooses to get to the core issues of jealousy, ambition, power, and strategy using just five actors in dual role (with the exception of Richard). This leaves many of the lords, ladies, courtiers, and circumstances out of the picture. It also means that there is a lot less for Richard to sink his teeth into for manipulation, plotting, and political maneuvering. It can leave the play feeling a bit like Richard is playing a game of royal chess that has been demoted to checkers with only a few moves left.
The play focuses on the consequences of one man’s actions, greed, and quest for power that can quickly devolve into tyranny to all those who oppose them. Regardless if this play feels like a commentary on current, past, or future governments it does pose the interesting question at the end for the audience to ponder. When tyranny rears its head again will people be “ready to battle, or ready to fold?”
SEIZE THE KING is playing at the La Jolla Playhouse through September 16th at the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre. For ticket and show information got to www.lajollaplayhouse.org