The evil, power-hungry Richard appeared on stage for the first time just a few minutes into “Seize the King,” which the Classical Theater of Harlem bills as playwright Will Power’s modern reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” when the skies darkened and burst, as if in angry rebuke. In other words, it rained. Buckets. The show was stopped. Theatergoers, assaulted by the downpour, scurried from their seats. But then something happened that seems a prime candidate for an Only in New York moment. Instead of rushing home, more than 50 members of the audience lined up in front of the stage at the outdoor Richard Rodgers Amphitheater in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park. They took refuge under the bandshell that hangs out over the proscenium, shielding them from the raindrops. They just stood there, waiting out the rain. For 45 minutes. The rain finally stopped, and, in what felt like a miracle to me, the play resumed.
“This is New York City,” Carl Cofield, the director of “Seize The King,” said when it was finished, pointing to the crowd. “The tenacity.”
It was an emotional moment, enough to make you cry, all the more so because it marked the return of Classical Theater of Harlem to live, in-person performance after the long, dark months of the pandemic. And there was so much irony too: CTH artistic director Ty Jones told us once the rain had died down that they only had to wait for the power to kick back in, for the company to resume this play by Power about….power.
There is no way I can separate out the production from the overall experience, but that seems always the case in free, outdoor summer theater. The atmosphere, literally and figuratively, always seems more important than in indoor theater, and helps me appreciate shows to which I might not otherwise be as receptive. It’s how I felt when CTH did a hip-hop musical version of Euripides “The Bacchae” two years ago, also at the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater, which was the company’s last summer production.
What I can say is that the choice of “The Bachae” seemed a better fit then than “Seize the King” does now.
Yes, “Seize the King” is a timely play, with its warning that “evil in men always resurfaces….to trump virtue.” (Projection designer Brittany Bland helps emphasize the modern-day relevance in the CTH production with a beginning montage of soldiers and police officers.) The chronicle of Richard’s bloody, scheming rise to power is also smartly streamlined. Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” which is his second longest play, has more than 50 characters. Will Power’s has a cast of five, portraying little more than a dozen characters, and a running time of 90 minutes with no intermission (not counting time out for rain.)
Power’s use of street vernacular doesn’t bother me. I’m not a Shakespeare purist. I can accept Power’s discarding Shakespeare’s lines with which Queen Elizabeth dismisses Richard (“You envy my advancement and my friends’:God grant we never may have need of you!”) and replacing them with the queen commanding Richard to “kiss my ass” – and meaning it literally. Andrea Patterson’s delivery as the (newly named) Queen Woodville surely helps to put that over.
What’s harder for me to accept is Power’s replacing Shakespeare’s verses with his own poetry that is just as dense and convoluted, yet not as powerful (or at least not as familiar.) If I’m going to struggle with the language, I’d sooner it be with the Bard’s opening lines of “Richard III” –
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
rather than Power’s opening lines in “Seize the King” –
Oceans of vast time, siphoning men from
Those who inhale the sweet life-breath from
Those whom inside maggots move, birthing their young
The old empires, the new kingdoms, the monarchies of morrow
Shall never know, one from another…
My objection, however, dissolves like, um, paper programs in the rain (luckily the CTH programs are digital), thanks to CTH’s glorious production. It stands out for the company’s usual spectacular design; for five actors as tenacious and imperturbable as the audience; and especially for the five dancers whose interludes, choreographed by Tiffany Rea-Fisher with music by Frederick Kennedy, make “Seize the King” feel wondrous. The theater makers and the theater goers of “Seize the King” seized the day.
“Seize the King” is on stage for free at the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater in Marcus Garvey Park through July 29, 2021.