France and Britain at odds – stop the presses!
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Beverly Bullock
Shakespeare at Love Creek
Sargent Theatre, American Theater of Actors, 314 West 54th Street
Equity approved production (closed)
Review by David Mackler
King John, youngest brother of Richard the Lionhearted, has gotten a bum rap in the last 400 years or so, usually played as a weak, sniveling, usurper of power while Richard was off fighting in the Crusades. No one would mistake the John of The Lion in Winter or The Adventures of Robin Hood for the John that Shakespeare presents. For King John neophytes, it is immediately clear that Shakespeare wasn’t interested in Robin Hood, or even the Magna Carta. He had other fish to fry.
The claim of this King John (Nicholas Stannard) to the throne is shaky, based on some measures of deceit and betrayal, but this guy can also deliver a workable and fair verdict in a dispute over land and parentage between Philip, aka the bastard (Trevor Davis), and Robert Falconbridge, his half brother (Chase Nosworthy). Eleanor of Aquitaine (Libby Hughes) – see Lion in Winter for a version of her story – takes Philip as a courtier, John knights him, giving him legitimacy, Robert gets the land. Quite a king – even their mother (Carla Torgrimson) gets into the mood, admitting that Richard (the Lionhearted, remember?) is Philip’s father.
Well, there’s also plenty of historical exposition that needs to be delivered, but Shakespeare’s grand scheme comes through when John and another Philip, this one the King of France, practically bicker over the right of Arthur (Hollie Overton), son of Geoffrey, John’s other brother – xref The Lion in Winter again for another take on him – to be king, and John and Arthur’s mothers, the afore-mentioned Eleanor and Constance (Joanie Schumacher) take the opportunity to snipe at each other. Shakespeare’s audience would be intimately familiar with the heads of Britain and France fighting over protocol and governing, but it has an eerie familiarity today – all that’s missing is a Bush. And Philip (the bastard one, John’s ally) goes out of his way to provoke the Duke of Austria (Jed Dickson). The more things change . . . .
That the soap opera is balanced by the reality of politics is Shakespeare’s triumph, even if King John doesn’t reach the heights of his other histories or tragedies. And again, resonances of current politics are there when neither John nor the King of France can enter Angiers – the guard at the gate doesn’t believe who they are (no CNN then), and the bastard Philip has to convince the monarchs to put their differences aside, to combine and conquer so to speak, just to get in. As the bastard Philip, Davis also plays to the audience, giving running (and very cynical and entertaining) commentary.
Coalition marriages are arranged, alliances are tested, orders are given then not carried out, some sides want peace, some demand war, sympathies shift, religion is set off against the monarchy, an accidental death is cast as a murder – no current play is as timely. Uncommonly well acted for all its soap opera juice, and smartly directed by Beverly Bullock – surprising, and involving. Schumacher’s Lady Constance was particularly good, playing her mad scene for all it was worth, but affecting nonetheless. Having the doomed Arthur played by a woman is stacking the deck, but it all plays out very satisfyingly.
The stage at the Sargent Theater was nicely dressed by Viola Bradford’s sets, and Bullock’s costumes were lush and on the money – it’s a pleasure to watch good actors use their costumes as part of their characters. The theater’s lighting board was up to its old tricks, but when it calmed down the (uncredited) lighting was unobtrusive and satisfactory. King John is under-known, but it is sturdy (and sometimes eloquent) Shakespeare, well served by Love Creek as part of their ongoing presentation of the canon.