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In La Jolla Playhouse's World Premiere ‘Seize the King,' A Diverse and Modern Take on A Classic Shakespeare Play

The director of La Jolla Playhouse's "Seize the King," a retelling of Shakespeare's classic "King Richard III," talks about reviving and modernizing the play for audiences, in the round.

When Playwright Will Power and Director Jaime Castaneda first started talking about Power's "Seize the King," a retelling of Shakespeare's classic "King Richard III," one of the first conversations they had centered around diversity. 

"We wanted to open up the representation of race on our stages as much as possible," Castaneda said in an interview with NBC 7 San Diego. "That was probably the first or second conversation we were having, even when we were discussing the play itself."

Castaneda, the associate artistic director at La Jolla Playhouse, and Power, a playwright known for his play, "Fetch Clay, Make Man" and "The Seven" (which Playhouse theatergoers may recognize), have known each other for years. 

The two have been wanting to work together for years, too, Castaneda said, when the opportunity finally arose. About a year and a half, Castaneda called up Power and asked what he was working on.

It was a retelling of the iconic Shakespeare play "King Richard III," told only with five actors. However, Power would be doing additional research to shape and supplement the original Shakespeare play.

He wasn't done yet, Castaneda said, but close to being finished with the first draft.

A week later, Power sent over his first draft. 

"I was kind of a big fan of his work, and we programmed his play on his first draft," Castaneda said. 

It was kind of serendipitous. "King Richard III" happened to be one of the director's favorite Shakespeare pieces, and he had been wanting to bring Shakespeare to the Playhouse for a while now.

This play was an opportunity to bring a Shakespearean story with familiar characters to the Playhouse stage, all the while injecting a sense of urgency, given current events at play around America. 

"When I first talked to Will, he was talking about both using the Shakespeare 'Richard III' as inspiration, but then also doing some historical research and creating his own Richard," Castaneda said. "What Will was doing, he was using source material, but he was bringing his own original flavor to it, so that was very exciting."

The resulting piece is both contemporary and traditional, Castaneda said. It retains its classical feel but adds in everyday American colloquialisms. 

"I knew Will from hip-hop days, both as a performer and a writer, and although this isn't a hip-hop traditional piece, to me it was exciting to think about those overlap...and what we might able to do with this production, how we might be able to cast it, how this idea would sell a slightly different 'Richard III' then probably what is normally produced around American stages today," Castaneda said. 

One of the ways both Power and Castaneda wanted to tackle that idea was to make the cast multicultural. The production's cast reflects this decision, Castaneda said. For example, the actor playing Richard III, Jessie Perez, is Mexican. 

"I don't remember the last time I've seen a Mexican play Richard III on any stage throughout this country," Castaneda said.

By casting a diverse set of actors, Castaneda said, the production expands the points of reference for the play. 

"It's exciting to see five people and the drummer come from many different points of reference, regionally, but then also just with where their families and their backgrounds bring them from," he explained.

Another important element for both Castaneda and Power: the parallels with the original Shakespearean story and the American political machine in 2018, especially when it comes to the transfer of power and how one person gets into office.

"My hope is that someone that loves language and classical work will be able to relish in what is a new interpretation of a classic play, while somebody who has no point of reference for Shakespeare or Richard will be able to get on board with a really exciting play about this tyrannical king," Castaneda said.

He also hopes that the physical production he's directing is exciting - a ride in and of itself, he says.

It's dense material, Castaneda said - both the history and the Shakespearean language. 

"Sometimes I think people's eyes glaze over or go to sleep when they start listening to Shakespearean or classical text, so we're hoping to mix that up," Castaneda said. "We're hoping to be able to honor the classical rules while still keeping the play compelling for a contemporary audience."

The creative team and actors have been working to make the piece more accessible and relevant for people who may or may not be familiar with "King Richard III."

"Every Shakespeare company around the country is trying to make Shakespeare relevant today," Castaneda said. "And I think what Will (Power) and the team and the actors are doing is, we're doing that, but we're creating it from scratch with Will's work."

"We're trying to make an exciting, vibrant event while creating a space for language to be front and center," Castaneda added.

"Seize the King" runs from Aug. 21 to Sept. 16, 2018 at the La Jolla Playhouse's Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre. You can buy tickets here

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