2/15/2020 SEIZE THE KING Alliance Theatre
THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT
(Preview Alert: Unbeknownst to me, the “Official” opening of this play will not be until next week. That being said, it’s always been my position that if admission is being charged, analysis should be allowed, especially on limited runs shorter than a month. I will usually indulge, unless I’m specifically asked not to. IMHO, this production was “Ready for Prime Time,” a few mush-mouth moments aside that I’m sure will be cleared up by opening.)
If you’ll forgive a political observation, presidential elections have lately become more popularity contest than sober deliberation of choices for leadership, more “Prom King” race than “Who do want running our country” decision. Candidates are increasingly pandering to this trend, trying to be “more like us” than “true to themselves.” Personally, I prefer candidates who are too busy to share a beer, who are more concerned with policy choices than corn dogs and county fairs, who have a track record of successfully building coalitions and “working with the other side.”
I believe this trend is much on the mind of playwright Will Power in his Seize the King, a modern hip-hop (ish) take on Shakespeare’s Richard III, (almost) as much as the more apparent question, “Is humanity inherently good or inherently wicked,” a question which is examined but hardly answered. More to the point, his play riffs (“slams” if you will) on the cyclical nature of history, on the notion that despots may fall, but their “spirits” strive for rebirth, and the overwhelming preference of humanity is to allow it to happen.
The play starts with a “chorus” (who cleverly doubles as the curtain-speech presenter) lamenting the tendency that Evil has “always to trump virtue / As old black-minded kings of long ago / Resurface in the twisted faces of / Today’s emperors and empresses.” Right away we see that, though the vocabulary and idioms are modern, the tone and syntax are as highly stylized and poetically lyrical as Shakespeare’s original.
What follows is a compelling piece that successfully condenses Shakespeare’s densely populated saga to a core six characters (played by five versatile actors – Richard, Hastings, Buckingham, Elizabeth Woodville, Lady Anne, and Prince Edward. Four of the actors double in all the minor folks who fill out the tale. Departures from Shakespeare run rampant as do departures from history (echoing Shakespeare’s own Tudor-based departures). There are some things that will definitely NOT appeal to the entrenched Shakespearean: a Lady Anne and a Queen Elizabeth who are as mercenary and power-hungry as Richard, a wooing that is more Weinstein-crude than seductively elegant, a Richard who is more bitter and ambitious than gleefully bad, and a Richard who is not deformed, but merely “short, ugly, and impotent.”.
Still, the consolidations and simplification really work, and even the departures are designed to streamline Richard’s machinations, to clarify (and polarize) the combatants, to create an inexorable rush to Bosworth. This is a piece filled with references to contemporary political “buttons.” “Shout Outs” to immigration, health care, disinformation, and the demonization of “the other” (which of course includes political opponents) abound and resonate clearly – Mr. Power is not subtle, nor should he be. I (and last night’s audience) especially enjoyed Richard’s off-hand (truthiness) comment, “A difference there is between not the whole truth and a lie.”
This is a very tight ensemble. Travis Turner (from last year’s Goodnight, Tyler) is a Richard every bit as devious and layered as any classical Richard, substituting sheer force of will for the charming surface that can make Richard so seductive. He is very ably supported by Wigasi Brant (a proud Hastings, a fey tailor, and others), Allan Edwards (Buckingham and others), Tangela Large (Queen Elizabeth and others), and Shakirah Demesier (Lady Anne, Prince Edward, and others). All beautifully present Mr. Power’s densely lyrical and rhythmic dialogue (and monologues –so many monologues) clearly and passionately. All create indelible characters enmeshed in an inescapable web of inevitable (oft-repeated) history.
I must also credit the brick-and-cinderblock set of Nephelie Andonyadis, the mood-enhancing lights of Benjamin Rawson (footlights and sidelights creating evocative facial shadows), the elegantly stunning costumes of Sarita Fellows that are distinctly contemporary yet still suggestive of eras past, and the sound design of Robert Kaplowitz, whose musical and effects choices are near perfect. This is indeed a “Tech Ensemble” that creates a cohesive look and “feel” to this alt-historical world.
And of course, much of the success is due to the direction of Los Angeles based Michael John Garsés, who keeps his stage pictures compelling, his overall conception clear, and his pace build-to-climax perfect. I can only hope Atlanta producers can lure him here again and again.
So, what does the story of Richard contribute to today’s political ethos? Let me answer with another question – Would you prefer a leader who is evil and corrupt and Machiavellian but is “on your side” and succeeds in policies you like, or one who is honest and generous but is “on their side” and advocates policies you find abhorrent? Of course in any election, these are not the only choices, but the tendency of all campaigns seems fear “the virtuous other,” to pull out the stops to vilify the “other side” with half-truths and outright lies. It’s so much easier to condemn someone as a traitor, a Socialist, a Russian puppet, an evil child-eating ghoul, than to actually engage in sober conversation about issues and policies.
Which is why evil always comes back.
Which is why Richard’s story is relevant.
Which is why Seize the King is so compelling and memorable.
As we are admonished before we return to our cozy political “bubbles,” “When he comes back, will thou be ready / Ready to battle, or ready to fold?” I suspect that no matter who wins the 2020 election, half of us will be ready to battle, the other half ready to fold.
My Kingdom for a Moral Compass!
-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #SeizeTheKing@Alliance)