Thursday, March 24, 2016

Margin Notes: King John

Isaac Miller as Bastard. Photo by David Andrew Laws.
King John

Seen on: Wednesday, 3/23/16.
My grade: B+

Plot and Background
King John, recently inheriting his throne from his deceased brother Richard the Lionhearted, holds his crown with a tenuous grasp - challenged by France and Austria, who back his nephew Arthur as the rightful heir to follow Richard to the throne. Through a mixture of force, diplomacy, a bad run in with a Cardinal, and some underhanded manipulation, John struggles to maintain his power against overwhelming odds. King John is presented by Hamlet Isn't Dead, a Shakespeare company dedicated to performing Shakespeare's works in chronological order. They are partnering with Mary-Mitchell Campbell's organization, Artists Striving to End Poverty, on this production.

What I Knew Beforehand
I'd read the play but never seen it, and I've worked on one of Constance's monologues fairly recently. I knew that the company had cast a woman in the title role here, intending to explore how the threats to her crown played against her role as a woman surrounded by men in this production. I've also seen a few of Hamlet Isn't Dead's productions (and reviewed their Richard II).


Play: It's rather a strange play, I realized midway through. Perhaps not atypical of Shakespeare's histories (I'd have to research it), the force and flow of the various players takes precedent over any intense character study of the titular monarch. Perhaps Richards II and III spoiled me for thinking I'd be getting some soliloquies from our King, but I was disappointed to realize how little I was being let in to John's rationale. Most of what we see of John is her public role, that of courtly behavior and kingly proclamations - only in the latter half of the play, when she first schemes for Arthur's death and then regrets that scheming, do we get any sense of the inner workings of John as a person. We get more of the Bastard's inner thoughts than any other character onstage (so perhaps it's appropriate he and John share the final bow here). Moving along from this, while King John may not be the most engaging of Shakespeare's histories, this is a thoroughly engaging production of it - streamlined to just over two hours, it is efficiently-paced, clearly presented, and overall entertaining. Director Lisa LaGrande stages it in my favorite style (thrust), and effectively crafts dynamic stage pictures where everyone has a good view of the action. Each act begins with a throwback - a dumb show, a gestured dance on the worship of power - and she finds a moment of poetry within the narrative, too, in young Arthur's attempted escape from prison. The battle is perhaps the least effectively staged, in terms of communicating either danger or a narrative, but that is a minor complaint in a highly competent production. For those who haven't seen this rarely-produced history, this is definitely worth catching.