Tuesday, May 20, 2008

King Yawn

Sarah Newhouse and Bill Barclay in King John.

Over at Art Hennessey's Mirror Up to Nature, I recently claimed that Shakespeare's King John was "quite theatrical." So now, faced with the arty tedium of the Actors' Shakespeare Project's version, I guess I have some 'splainin' to do!

But honestly - it is theatrical, really it is! I confess I was stunned by the discovery, too; the play doesn't read all that well, and nobody ever does it, so when I caught one, two, three rockin' productions in a row, I began to get the idea that the play was far more do-able than I'd dreamed. Well, now ASP has pulled me back to reality - although I still hang onto the belief that King John is more than just Shakespeare's rehearsal for various scenes from Henry V and Hamlet (among others).

It's true the plot is a labyrinth of forgotten English history - John, the weakling brother of Richard the Lionhearted, snatches the crown after his sibling's death, his grip steadied by the iron hand of his mother, Eleanor (yes, that one, of Aquitaine). But when John tries to assert his authority over his territories in France, he's confronted by the French King Philip with a secret weapon: the son of Richard - accompanied by his hysteric mother Constance - who arguably has a stronger claim to the throne than John himself. (Just to keep things interesting, Richard's bastard son is on the scene, too!) Needless to say, the coldest, most cynical machinations quickly ensue - indeed, King John plays like a horrific, undeceived X-ray of the power games in the later history plays, with the death (and even the torture) of the problematic young prince moving into view as the chief object of all these augustly pious personages (with the Vatican as the ultimate power broker).

But while director Benjamin Evett clearly understands the dark dimensions of this drama, he has decided to play it as black comedy rather than horrorshow, with minimal dramatic results. True, King John should crackle with bitter laughs - but Evett styles his grasping royal Mafia as caricatures out of The Sopranos or Pulp Fiction (or perhaps the producers of said fictions); their inner natures aren't revealed but forced on us, via a juvenile kind of louche decadence, from the martini-soaked opening.

And it doesn't help that roughly half the cast is mis-cast. As John, Michael Forden Walker simply doesn't evince the inner insecurity on which the first half of the play depends; likewise the coolly competent Janet Morrison hardly evokes the cruel heartiness of Eleanor's obvious balls (after all, the lady marched in the Second Crusade!). Indeed, when Eleanor's death leaves John at loose ends, we're surprised by his collapse, instead of immediately intuiting his doom, as we should. As for the rest of the company, I had fun mentally re-deploying the actors in more appropriate roles: Joel Colodner, who's playing the King of France, should really be playing John, and Sarah Newhouse should be playing Constance instead of Hubert, while Jennie Israel should be playing Hubert instead of Constance. Likewise Maurice Emmanuel Parent, who's playing the Dauphin, should really be playing the Bastard (or maybe Eleanor?).

How did all these people end up in the wrong roles? I'd guess it's because of the inner political dynamics of the ASP - but whatever the reason, it plays hackeysack with all the relationships in the play. Still, given their situation, the fact that the actors strike some sparks at all I suppose is cause for praise. Playing wildly against type, for instance, Newhouse almost convinces us that she might torture a little boy to death; likewise the stolid Israel makes a kind of case for a low-key reading of Constance's mad scene. Meanwhile Parent's Dauphin is certainly watchable (although he traces no arc from corrupt fledgling to hardened warrior), and even Walker manages some intriguing moments in John's final scenes - although by that point any such insights count as too little, too late.

Meanwhile Bill Barclay brings a clever, sallow wit to the role of the Bastard, just not enough rude cojones (and the need for same is really the subtext of the whole first half of the play, so their lack is acutely felt). Joel Colodner, as usual, is the most assured presence in the whole ensemble as King Philip, and once John Kuntz gets past his Guido-Sarducci get-up as the Cardinal, he does evince a creepy Catholic perversity.

To be fair, the play itself collapses about three-quarters of the way through (once that pesky Prince falls from his prison in the Tower). And it should also be noted that if Evett has completely misjudged the emotional tone of the play, he has still staged it creatively, using his current space (the basement of St. Paul's Cathedral) so fluidly that a squad of lighting assistants had to practically sprint to keep up with the actors. But in the end, clever blocking can't make a production, and actors shouldn't be casting themselves in the roles they want (which is I'd guess how at least a few of these mistakes happened). The ASP certainly has the talent onboard to tackle King John; but do they have the insight and the discipline?

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