Impeachable offenses of a perjurious and obstructive nature are happening in practically every scene of Shakespeare's King John. Almost everyone is forsworn at some point, and high-handed rhetoric is continually enlisted to justify it.
King Phillip of France goes back on his alliance with King John. The Pope's legate, Cardinal Pandulph, excommunicates John in order to incite a war. Constance, a would-be Queen Mother, makes a deal with the French king in order to gain the British crown for her reluctant 10-year-old son. And King John shifts allegiances as often as Linda Tripp changes phone tapes.
These are Machiavellian characters at their best. And director Daniel Kleinfeld had them played as such. Peter Brown's King John slithered through the office of royalty with a smug self-righteousness that only his mother could find winning. Stuart Hutchison's Cardinal came across with a highly distasteful arrogance that befitted his panderous meddling, which results in the death of thousands. And Getchie Argetsinger, as Elinor, and Wendy Walker, as Constance -- both mothers to the dueling heirs to the throne, John and Arthur -- each served up a healthy dose of Lady MacBethlike conniving.
Kleinfeld and his team rendered a highly competent and professional retelling of the story of King John. But the aloof, calculating environment ultimately lacked the passion necessary to make this revival truly engaging.
Only two characters elicit sympathy. One is the rightful heir to England's throne, the pitiable youth Prince Arthur. The other is Blanch, who must choose between her husband and her blood kin when war breaks out following her marriage. In this production's most heart-wrenching tableau, she stood in the middle of the stage with her outstretched arms reaching to both camps. A silk scarf hung from her hand like blood flowing off her wrist. This emotional portrait was courtesy of the combined talents of Melanie Anastasia Brown and Kleinfeld.
Other noteworthy performances included Stuart Hutchison's smarmy Cardinal, Bill Corry's quirky Angiers, and Yuri Lowenthal's fiery Louis, particularly in his commanding monologue near the end of the play.
Set in Shakespearen never-never-land, most of the production values were effective if uninspired. The set, by Dan Jagendorf, was a basic assemblage of nondescript canvas, metal, and open stage machinery - lighting and such. The Pollock-like, splattered suits and army fatigues were creatively prepared by Rebecca Bernstein. (Though why was the Cardinal wearing a ceremonial academic robe?) Ed Gilmartin's fight choreography ignited scenes convincingly, with the exception of the first battle scene, which was staged like a Keystone Cops episode. The sonic music and sound design by Brian Stillman - incorporating battle calls, drumming, The Clash andTheWilliam Tell Overture - were production highlights. Stillman's aural landscape was eerie and evocative, two qualities missing from this otherwise prosaic production.
Lighting: 1/Sound: 2
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Copyright 1999 James A. Lopata