Review: In ‘Seize the King,’ ‘Richard III’ Goes to Harlem

Have you been ravenous, lo these many shutdown months, for the layered richness of live theatrical design? The Classical Theater of Harlem has just the thing to sate your hunger.

Ambitious design is one of the hallmarks of this company, and it is an absolute joy to encounter it again in such fine form in Will Power’s “Seize the King,” a contemporary verse spin on “Richard III,” in Marcus Garvey Park.

The brothers Christopher and Justin Swader, old hands at transfiguring the utilitarian stage of the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater, frame Carl Cofield’s production with a set that is both monumental and minimalist, aglow with Alan C. Edwards’s canny lighting. In the gathering dusk, we gaze on its stony surfaces and square-edged sconces, and enchantment begins even before the show does.

It’s a strange word, enchantment, to apply to the story of a duke so hellbent on his own sovereignty that he will murder the 12-year-old nephew who stands in his way — a tale that Power intends as cautionary, with cycles of history and human violence in mind.

“The evil in men always resurfaces,” a narrator (Carson Elrod) warns at the start, as the stage walls fill with Brittany Bland’s projections of slave ships and war.

Yet there is something inherently spellbinding right now about sitting outdoors in the dark with other humans, and the occasional blinking firefly, watching a performance unfold with doubling and dance.

I caught the first preview of the run, since the previous night’s show had been rained out. Because of that, some performances may have been a little tentative. So when I tell you that Ro Boddie, as Richard, lacks the charisma of a scheming antihero who seeks to draw us into his confidence — well, he may grow more comfortable in the role.

The same applies to Alisha Espinosa as Edward V, the young heir to the throne, who needs to but does not bruise our hearts. She makes a far better fit as the calculating Lady Anne, who marries Richard with close to no illusions after he courts her brazenly in her bath — a makeover of one of the tackiest wooing scenes in Shakespeare. Kudos, by the way, for the costume designer Mika Eubanks’s neat trick of having Anne’s outfit in that tub scene stand in for frothy bubbles.

This production is more adept overall at conveying the play’s humor than its heft: the waste of innocent lives in service of vain rulers, the need for vigilance against the resurgence of the vanquished.Yet the other three principal actors (Andrea Patterson, RJ Foster and Elrod), move easily between comedy and woe, and deliver Power’s complex verse with remarkable clarity. Especially in the scenes they share, they are fun to watch.

Dance, a regular feature of Classical Theater of Harlem productions, is used here to extraordinary effect. Choreographed by Tiffany Rea-Fisher with her customary grace, it is woven more deeply than usual into the storytelling — as when we watch the death of the old king, Edward IV, enacted wordlessly — and into the mood of the performance. (Music is by Frederick Kennedy, who also did the very effective sound design.)

It is impossible to fully separate the art of theater-making in this chrysalis-shedding moment from the relief we feel simply to be experiencing it. So I will tell you that I felt full in an unexpected way after “Seize the King.” To which, incidentally, admission is free.

It was not perfect, and it did not have to be. It was live, it contained multitudes of beauty, and it felt like luxury.

Seize the King
Through July 29 at the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

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