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A CurtainUp Review: King John

CurtainUp - April 27, 2014

By Deirdre Donovan

If watching umpteen productions of Shakespeare this season has made you feel like taking a sabbatical from the Bard, why not take one more Shakespearean leap to one of his most-neglected plays, King John. It is now being staged by the Frog and Peach Company, that redoubtable little troupe on the Upper Westside who do classics on a shoestring. Lynnea Benson (Artistic Director of Frog and Peach) helms the piece, and shakes it out as a medieval Game of Thrones.

Benson's gutsy approach couldn't be more right for this action-packed history play. She jumpstarts her production by leaning into those fighting words "borrowed majesty" that are spoken at the outset to King John by Chatillon of France. The subsequent bickering, skirmishes, and battles between the English and French brings each to its breaking point. Benson sees in this play what other directors all too often miss: That one must fully tap into the energy of the political tug-of-war or lose the deeper (and disturbing) truth of the play: everybody is living in an unreliable political world here that is constantly shifting ground.

Shakespeare penned this work at approximately the same time as King Richard II but took a huge step back in English history to that time when the Crusades were coming to a close. In fact, King John stands out like a thumb from his dual-tetralogies which dramatize the "War of the Roses" in the mid-15th century. Even so, King John shares many of the same concerns and motifs: primogeniture, illegitimacy, a king's moral character, and his capacity for good government.

Shakespeare packed a ton of history into King John's 2648 lines. And with its conflated time, shaping of historical figures for dramatic need, and his own creations (the Bastard and the Duke of Austria), it's easy to get lost in the woods of this political world, which zigs and zags between England and France. The political pundits here are a mix of virtuoso politicians (think Cardinal Pandulph), two wishy-washy kings (King John and Philip of France), and two power-hungry Queens (Elinor and Constance). Back-stabbers are common as salt here, and many form alliances that can materialize in the morning and dissolve by sunset. But Benson manages to carve a clear path through this pathless wood by her brisk pacing, lightning fast transitions, and her casting of a few strong actors in principal roles.

While the acting is up and down in this ensemble, a few principals land squarely on their theatrical feet. Luke Edward Smith, as Philip Faulconbridge the Bastard, is the standout. He has fine Shakespearean chops can smoothly shift between court rhetoric and colloquial speech in a gentleman's wink. Hamish Carmichael's Arthur comes across as suitably innocent but never precious. Karen Lynn Gorney, as King John's mother Elinor, is stern as steel as her son's eminence grise. And Amy Frances Quint, as Arthur's mother Constance, blends the rational and hysterical aspects of her persona and keeps it in a difficult balance.

Eric Doss, as King John, has the most unrewarding role of the dramatis personae. How does one play this complex but spineless king? Well, Doss resolves the acting dilemma simply by not overreaching his part and performing the titular character as one who falls victim to his own impetuousness.

Those sentimentalists who enjoy speculating on Shakespeare's plays as veiled episodes of autobiography will be much rewarded by King John. More than one scholar has pointed out that Shakespeare may have informed his writing of Constance's lament for young Arthur in Act 4 by mourning the death of his own 11-year-old son Hamnet in 1596. Little wonder that Arthur's death is so touching and filled with pathos.

King John has no well-defined trajectory or strong central hero as in Henry V or deeply introspective king as in Richard II. However, it has more than a few soliloquys (the Bastard's speech on "commodity" is by far the best!) and set pieces to admire. What's more, the gloriously outsized character of the Bastard is one of Shakespeare's finest creations. His barbed satiric wit and incredible rise from illegitimate son of Richard the Lionhearted to patriot-hero is unmatched in the canon.

This is a rare opportunity to see this rarely-produced play. This cast and creative team stir the political pot of King John to a full roiling boil.

King John
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Lynnea Benson
Cast: Eric Doss, (King John), Karen Lynn Gorney (Elinor), Amy Frances Quint (Constance), Hamish Carmichael (Arthur), Luke Edward Smith (Philip Faulconbridge the Bastard), Jonathan Reed Wexler (The Earl of Salisbury), David Elyha (Cardinal Pandulph), and Ilaria Amadasi (Blanch of Spain), Matthew Gunn Park (Melun), Aidan Eastwood (Lewis), Victor Carinha (Prince Henry), Mark Weatherup, Jr. (The Earl of Pembroke), Gabriel Christian (Chatillon), Ken Straus (Philip, King of France), Victor Carinha (Lymoges, Duke of Austria), Randy Howk (Hubert), Amy Frances Quint (A Prophet of Pomfret).
Set design: Andy Estep
Costume design: Nina Vartanian
Lighting design: Dennis Parichy
Combat: Marcus Watson
Music Director: Ian McDonald
The West End Theater at 263 West 86th Street (B'way and West End Ave.). Tickets: $18. Phone Smarttix (212) 868-4444.
From 4/24/14; closing 5/18/14.
Thursday, Friday, and Saturday @ 7:30pm; Sunday @ 3pm.
Running time: Approximately 2 hours including intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 4/26/14