'Power/Trip' Character Analysis: Richard, Richard, King Richard

Mid-show exhaustion was just beginning to set in and I honestly thought I was hallucinating when I heard the intro to ABBA’s “S.O.S.” emanating from the cello and violin and guitar in the corner of the stage — Richard’s cello and violin and guitar.

They were his, he reminded us. They belonged to him, just as everything else in Anne Cecilia Demelo’s "Power/Trip" (performed last week at CFA) belonged to him, a highly ironic effect in a show about the impotence and toxicity of government leaders.

Richard, played by senior Jonathan Champion, commanded attention from the very beginning, sulking near the instrumentalists and failing to make himself known until it was quite necessary, a pattern that would continue throughout the show. When he did make himself known, particularly in his layman form, it was consistently to raise objections. "Power/Trip" featured two versions of Richard, one being a wealthy, whiny man and actor, and the other being King Richard II from Shakespeare’s famous play, which was performed as part of the show. Throughout, layman Richard’s comments called attention to his privilege — his rights and values that conflicted so thoroughly with those of the other actors. When another actor offered that she would be videotaping the performance process of "Richard II," Richard condemned video and media as a violation of God’s work, citing his privacy rights as a reason that he should not be videotaped. As the play rehearsal continued, other characters began to discuss more in-depth the political and social conflicts presented by the play and by the world around them. Each time, Richard emphatically attempted to cut short the conversations around him, reminding his fellow cast of the sacred nature of acting and the importance of remaining present. Sometimes his chiding seemed like encouragement and at other times a manipulative forcing of these players back into a play that was quickly consuming them whole.

In terms of the play-within-the-play, a wonderfully meta nod to the Shakespearean roots of the show, Richard took his own advice. Fully embodying the role of King Richard II, he was the first actor to don his Shakespearean costume. By becoming more than an actor, more than a man, he promptly became more than a king, proving one of the predominant themes of the show. References to his divine body, his covenant, and his representation of his people served to ridicule the relationship between political power and religion which has been consistently present throughout history, from the divine right of kings to swearing on the Bible. After he’s been dethroned, Richard’s incredulity manifests itself in this particular role: he assures himself that he will survive his fall because he is more than a king, he is a child of God.

In the meantime, there is an obvious sense of insecurity that comes with Richard’s character. Explicitly, he threatens violence when he senses rebellion, but internally, there is a struggle that threatens to break all structure by revealing his vulnerability. In his power and his glory he is isolated and for much of the play he is truly unreachable, living in his own mind. His grandeur often betrays him though, and it is in his most focused moments that we hear an obvious cry for help. Richard would appear on stage alone, speaking directly to the audience with persuasion and manipulation and what appeared to be the truth. He asked us to fix him, to be his friend. He told us that history would portray him, but that we would know the truth. He begged us, please, please, not to leave him, to believe in him. I wanted to. I wanted to think that I could trust him, just like we all want to think that we can trust the people who decide our laws and our lives; the alternative is too scary to contemplate. Inside, he must know what is right and what is wrong — everyone does.

It is important to note that two wide doors upstage remain closed until these moments occur, widening to expose the black backstage void behind them the closer Richard comes to breaking down. A clear metaphor for the exposition of Richard’s desperation, the set change added depth to the story and to the stage, changing the lighting composition and pulling the audience in deeper. As Richard grew more and more irritable, the doors opened more and more, often with him having disappeared somewhere behind them; by the end of the show, it was difficult to remember that the doors had ever been there at all.

Here I would like to return to the scene that I opened with: the spontaneous performance of ABBA’s “S.O.S.” by a sequin-clad Richard quite out of nowhere. Besides the obvious nature of the song — S.O.S.! — there was something extremely sinister about what was essentially a self-glorification and power grab and a vivid nightmare all in one. As an audience, we’d already been through his compelling run-around a few times, and by the time he was singing, I was just about sold. How could someone evil sing disco? Two key changes and a confetti shower later, though, I felt more embarrassed than anything — for him, and for myself, too. Eventually, he was gone, but the confetti stayed, a reminder of everything that was going on inside while he pretended to be okay.

The rest of the cast did what they could to undermine Richard’s credibility, criticizing his inability to handle conflict, his naivety, insufferability, and his tendency to make mistakes. But none of it meant anything in the end. In a classic Shakespearean death sequence, Richard admits his wrongs and his desire to change and is promptly stabbed in the back by another cast member, leaving the audience with a violent sense of loss. We trusted him all along, he told us to trust him and we were right to comply. It is unclear whether or not this world is better off without him. It is unclear whether or not anyone in the cast was paying enough attention to fully understand what happened. The intensity has grown and shattered, and no questions have been answered. The king is dead.