Shakespeare’s Richard III has reincarnated into a modern megalomaniac. He not only wants it all, he wants to prove that all of us are just like him. Will Power’s Seize the King, in its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse, uses only five actors to tell what may be a recurring event. Richard III, it suggests, was hardly the first self-absorbed black hole of a tyrant. He’s just one in a recurring chain. Seize also asserts that he won’t be the last. At play’s end, a character asks, “When he comes back, will I be ready?”
Shakespeare’s Richard is in cahoots with the audience. He reveals his moves beforehand like someone at confession saying, “Father forgive me, I’m about to have lust in my heart.” Only Richard doesn’t want forgiveness, he needs to dazzle with his evil expertise. Will Power’s Richard goes a step further. He’s convinced humanity is “rotten to the core.” We should admit the truth: we’re just as greedy and manipulative as he. We just don’t have the skills or the bravery to aspire.
Richard’s also an actor breaking every rule of the craft. In one of the play’s best scenes, he gives an empowered St. Crispin’s Day “victory speech.” Even though by now the audience can’t stand his character (or, as if watching a great white shark, is both afraid and fascinated), Jesse J. Perez’s excellent Richard rouses them with rhetorical flag-waving. He sounds so completely committed you wonder if the man giving the soliloquies is the opposite of the one we saw ordering 12-year-old Edward V to the tower and rivals butchered.
Maybe there’s goodness in him yet. Then he drops character and lambastes what he just said: you bought that crock? You might be dumber and more gullible than I imagined. What fools these voters be!
With his reactionary view of human nature, Richard imagines a “new ruling class,” rid of corruption in politics, all imports, and all foreign cultures. Every immigrant must go — and take their heathen traditions with them. He will build his kingdom with the “difference between not the whole truth and a lie.”
Unlike Shakespeare’s Richard, Perez has no hunchback. He doesn’t walk jagged or stare through lowered eyebrows. Instead, his black pegged pants adding to the effect, he’s almost sprite-like at times, and is cagey throughout. His addresses to the audience forge links his words snip in half. He’s two people: one’s our long time buddy, relaxed, confiding; the other’s the anti-Christ.
Director Jaime Castañeda stages heinous murders with a similar, two-fold look. You could almost call them beautiful. In one, as a saintly light gleams down, tiny red petals sprinkle on a bald head. But we’re watching a murder, right? So which is the fake news? What we see, or what we know is wrong?
In these mixed perceptions, the playwright follows Shakespeare. Throughout his opus, the Bard examines “th’attest of eyes and ears.” Do we see and hear truly? What if they conflict?
In another scene, after fighting his way to become Lord Protector of “Edward Five,” he’s finally King Richard! Perez goes loopy. Tyler Micoleau’s lights strobe, and he flops and tumbles on an all-glass floor, as if his inner child were Damian Five. He has it all, finally! So what now? He ruminates about stamping his name on everything. But his reign, no matter how self-aggrandizing, must end. As depression sinks in, he has a thought: if they can save his brain, seal it in fluids or something, he could rule forever!
One of the many questions the play raises: how much is enough? You can play Risk with the real world only so long. Another: is Richard right? Are we all corrupt and depraved and only pretend to be good? Buckingham (Julian Parker) certainly means well. But to achieve what he feels is a noble goal, he must do wrong. But even Richard reluctantly admits that Young Edward can see through shams. He’s a danger to Richard’s rise to power: “His like will never be trusted.” He must die.
As world premieres go, Seize the King easily ranks among the boldest. The playwright’s like a control tower, guiding in words, styles, and ideas from near and far. The language ranges from Shakespeare’s iambics to current slang and new inventions (a favorite: “I’d rather eat death”). As impressive, the dialogue combines sources into its own distinct rhythms and voice.
Director Jaime Castañeda matches Power’s language with flurries of movement. Some may have been by necessity, since he staged the piece in-the-round at the Potiker. Nonetheless the stark physicality underscores the haste of events, where people have little time to think. And ask themselves, “Did I just see that?” But can’t press replay.
Drummer Richard Sellers fills the house with percussive subtitles. He becomes the pulse of the play. And with only two hands and tonga drum, he convincingly recreates the entire Battle of Bosworth Field.
The production does have a consistent snag. Except for Perez and Julian Parker, on opening night the cast had problems with the hybrid dialogue. They often spoke in a hurry, as if opting for a contemporary tempo. Too often the choice blurred key expressions. The play would be better served if they slowed down, and honored the word first.