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Theatre in Review: Seize the King (Classical Theatre of Harlem/Marcus Garvey Park)

Ro Boddie. Photo: Richard Termine

It's a thrill to return to the theatre and find drama: full-throated conflict about life-or-death matters, populated with ruthless characters, loaded with issues that resonate with our anxious, fractious times. In Carl Cofield's crackling production of Will Power's drama, a cast of five enters, striking confrontational poses, and, instantly, you know they mean business. Skullduggery is afoot; this what we've been missing lo these many months.

Seize the King is a contemporary riff on Richard III, who, once again, proves to be a fiend for all seasons. As in Shakespeare's bloodstained history play, Richard -- the crippled, crabbed, altogether unlovely younger son of the House of York -- plots his way to the throne, coolly eliminating anyone who gets in his way. It's a torturous path, paved with bodies. But this is the vest-pocket version: Power drops the character of Richard's brother King Edward IV, a decision that significantly streamlines the action. Instead, Richard's main obstacle is Edward V, underage heir to the kingdom. At first, Richard tries to establish himself as the boy's protector -- an idea that should make anyone nervous. Thwarted in this plan, he plots Edward's removal while simultaneously working to consolidate his position through marriage and political alliances. As a handbook for self-advancement through treachery, Seize the King makes Machiavelli's The Prince look like The Power of Positive Thinking.

For a play that straddles two eras, Power has devised a distinctive language, combining a modern vocabulary with Elizabethan cadences; it's a strategy that proves highly effective. The Chorus -- Carson Elrod, staring us down, his hands bloodied -- warns us of atrocities to come: "Once man's death waters the next/And no matter how far stretches God's waters/The evil in men always resurfaces/The evil in men to cut and stunt/The evil always to trump virtue." Prince Edward (in Alisha Espinosa's performance, an ingenue on the surface and disconcertingly cynical underneath), bleakly comments, "Man steps on Stairmaster/Worshipping this thing called faith/A false idol is She/For Man works and sweats and never ascends/In the same pace where workout begins." We so rarely get such vigorous, contemporary poetry, so well-suited to the demands of drama, that this alone makes Seize the King worth your attention.

As Richard, Ro Boddie is cucumber-cool, with a hot sense of grievance lurking behind his calculating façade. Some Richards glitter with evil; others try to seduce us into complicity. Boddie, working methodically, uses Cartesian logic to makes the case for his crimes; he doesn't expect us to like him, because no one ever has. (The actor plays down his character's deformities, reducing them to a stiff-legged limp. He is also, in Mika Eubanks' apt costume design, something of a dandy in his maroon suits.) If his detachment seems almost inhuman, he is surrounded by a court packed with schemers and vengeance seekers. The most upright of them is R.J. Foster's Hastings, whose dismissive attitude and devotion to royal protocol earns him a fatal knifing. (Foster returns as a priest with an eye firmly fixed on the collection basket.) Andrea Patterson's Queen Woodville, mother of young Edward and widow of the late king, puts aside her grief to coarsely humiliate Richard. Espinosa also appears as Lady Anne, who, lying lazily in her bathtub, is only too ready to strike a marriage-of-convenience deal with Richard. Elrod's Lord Buckingham is a titled England Firster whose nativist attitude -- "The Scots, the Dutchmen, the Danes," he complains, "Now two foreigners for one Englishman"-- makes him ripe for Richard's manipulation. With this duplicitous crew, you can assume that the knives will come out sooner rather than later.

These cankerous, corrupt proceedings unfold on a set, designed by Christopher and Justin Swader, defined by a series of tilting, rust-colored portals and ending in an upstage wall with an enormous crack -- suggesting that the sovereign state is rotting from within; the designers also roll out a number of other looks, including an impressive topiary garden. The scene changes are frequently facilitated by a troupe of five dancers deftly choreographed by Tiffany Rea-Fisher. Among other things, Brittany Bland's projection design kicks off the evening with a compelling montage depicting war from the medieval era to today. Alan C. Edward's colorful lighting design is attuned to each of the play's emotional keys. In addition to his propulsive underscoring, which draws on musical styles of several eras, Frederick Kennedy's sound design provides excellent reinforcement for the cast.

As I noted last week, this summer brings us many revisions and updates to various Shakespeare plays; it's part of a long tradition, beginning with Nahum Tate and Colley Cibber in the Restoration Era and continuing to the recent Timothée Chalamet film The King. (No less a Shakespeare specialist than John Gielgud had an early West End success with Richard of Bordeaux, a rewrite of Richard II.) As Seize the King demonstrates, the history plays are most amenable to this sort of treatment because Shakespeare's grasp of the dynamics of power politics never goes out of style. These dramas remain uncanny mirrors of the treachery and double-dealing that inform so many matters of state; in Seize the King, that reflection is, anything, a little sharper. --David Barbour

(15 July 2021)

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