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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
By Elyse Sommer
Unlike, the exuberantly light and bright The Taming of the Shrew which is its in repertory mate at the Founders Theater (see link below), King John, with its power play between two countries (England and France) exacerbated by meddling religious fervor (the Catholic Church), is an all too timely blood filled epic. As England and France couldn't find a way to make their efforts at peace stick, and religion continued to rear its interfering head, so we continue to be overwhelmed by events that reinforce our inability to go a reasonable stretch of years without wars that leave innocent victims, especially children, in their wake. The following from King John as he begins to fall apart and hears of another setback drew some audible gasps of recognition: "O! where hath our intelligence been drunk? / Where hath it slept?"
Tina Packer's astute direction insures that even if you're unfamiliar with the play or King John's reign, you will have no difficulty understanding the complex issues that make this a heftier play than its popularity ranking in the Bard's canon would indicate. The lengthy monologues, spiced with far fewer than the usual instantly recognizable quotations, are delivered by the large cast with clarity and feeling. The themes -- and King John's has not one but three -- are smoothly interwoven.
Besides the power struggle between England and France, there are the backroom machinations that illustrate the influence wielded by strong mothers on their sons. In this case we have two mothers who bear more than a little responsibility for the English-French hostilities (John's mother Eleanor, wife of the late king Henry II whom you may remember from the stage and film play A Lion in Winter, places him on the throne even though her brother-in-law Richard had a son who should by rights have succeeded him when he died. The thus pushed aside young Arthur has an equally aggressive mother who, with the help of King Phillip of France, is determined to de-throne John).
As important as the mother-son relationship theme is, the exploration of how honor and leadership often play out in unexpected ways also figures importantly. Thus, while John is the title character, the real leader -- and the play's most interesting character -- is Phillip, the bastard son of Richard the Lion-Hearted and a married noblewoman. At his mother's behest John offers to knight Phillip if he cedes his share of the Faulconbridge estate to his older brother. This is the smartest advice the pushy Eleanor gives her son since the new knight (conveniently referred to as the Bastard throughout) becomes John's best and most devoted military aide-de-camp.
Besides her clear-eyed, easy-to-follow direction, Ms. Packer has also seen to it that King John, even though much more somber than The Taming of the Shrew, is a visually impressive production. Ceremonial pomp and circumstance abounds (most notably the entrance of the Pope's legate, Cardinal Pandulph and John's self-flagellating concession to the Cardinal's demands on behalf of his mother--the Mother Church). No shortage either of Michael Burnet's vividly choreographed battle scenes and Arthur Oliver's gorgeous costumes are color coordinated so that there's no confusion as to each character's affiliation . Martin Best's original musical score provides a nice fusion of medieval and modern electronic sound that's played by a small band of musicians unobrusively tucked into a corner of one of the upstage balcony section
The cast is too large (twenty strong!) to comment on everyone. However, as the Bastard is the play's only real hero and its most arresting character, so Peter Macon who portrays him is the most dynamic presence on stage. That said, Allyn Burrows does some interesting things with the anti-heroic title role. Annette Miller and Barbara Sims do well by the two mothers -- Miller is an elegantly Machiavellian Eleanor (quite literally the pushy mother when she firmly pushes the crown down on her son's head) and Sims is a tower of rage and grief as young Arthur's mother Constance. Mel Cobb, one of the company's most reliable character interpreters is awesomely awful as Cardinal Pandulph.
I suggest that you read Les Gutman and Lizzie Loveridge's reviews for additional comments on the play and more details about the convoluted plot: King John at Theatre for a New Audience, 2000 and King John London, 2002
For our review of the concurrently running Taming of the Shrew go here.
As part of the third annual Bankside Festival, Preludes will be presented before each performance outside adjacent to Founders' Theatre at 6:45 pm. Preludes are free, run 10-15 minutes, and include dances, sword fights, Shakespeare scenes, songs, and other Elizabethan entertainments.
King John Theatre for a New Audience, 2000
King John London, 2002