BWW Reviews: WSC Avant Bard's KING JOHN a Rare Theatrical Event
If your appetite for Shakespeare's history plays was whetted by PBS's recent series "The Hollow Crown," be of good cheer; King John is now receiving a solid production by the WSC Avant Bard. A rare gem, King John is a must for Shakespeare enthusiasts, not least because the play's complex plot renders it extremely difficult to stage. You will have the rare treat of seeing this unjustly neglected piece in fine form.
Don't bother to Google the play-the plot will bewilder you; just study the "Who's Who" chart WSC Avant Bard hands you in the lobby, and the map of England's so-called Angevin realm from the early 13th century. As you look over the vast territory and the family trees, remember that the complexity of King John is its greatest strength. England in the Middle Ages was a place of ever-shifting alliances where Kings, nobility and the Catholic Church were constantly at odds with each other. It's hard enough for us to understand why a person might switch sides once in his or her career; but in King John's era, poor governance and constant political instability forced people to swing back and forth like a pendulum just to survive.
Shakespeare's genius is to compress the reign of King John into a little more than 'two hours' traffic' on the stage; this enables him to portray vividly the chaos, hypocrisy and the pettiness of those fragile times. Director Tom Prewitt has further compressed the action into the cozy confines of Theatre on the Run; working with scenic designer Joseph Musumeci, he has created a typical 1950's basement fallout shelter where a young boy, toy castle at the ready, dreams up the play and, ingeniously, dreams himself into the action as both eyewitness and participant. The charming presence of 9-year-old Ethan Ocasio provides an emotional anchor, and he fittingly rounds out the action as John's ultimate heir.
As with the Cold War era, paranoia and high anxiety were everywhere in Medieval England. And Ian Armstrong plays King John as a soul gripped by the fever of power almost from the beginning far less secure than one might think, and constantly cutting deals that ultimately fail. One of his greatest challenges comes from his sister-in-law, Constance; as played by Anne Nottage she is the ultimate nightmare of a Helicopter Mom, shamelessly promoting her awkward and unready son Arthur as the true heir. And although he looks like little more than Nottage's comic foil at first, Connor J. Hogan's Arthur grows in our estimation; the essential goodness of this young prince provides some of the most moving moments of the play, as he pleas with John's henchman Hubert (Slice Hicks) for his life. Another one of Prewitt's innovations is to re-gender some of the more powerful roles in the play, with excellent results-Charlotte Akin as "Felipe," Queen of France, is a study in firm resolve and well-handled verse.
There are many strong performances here, with the cast doubling and even tripling roles-in nearly every case with good results. Cam Magee gives us a forceful Elinor of Aquitaine, John's mother, and returns later as a resolute, if fickle, Pembroke. Sun King Davis is truly intimidating as Austria, the very embodiment of Teotonic brute force (I could swear he just stepped out of the new film "Thor" just for a lark). Chuck Young is a smooth operator as the French Ambassador, Chatillion, while Rebecca Swislow is especially strong as Blanch, King John's niece and a marriageable pawn in the geopolitical games of the moment. Bruce Alan Rauscher offers us a quiet but sly Richard Plantagenet (a name he earns by accident of birth-long story), and Shakespeare gives him some of the best material in his soliloquys sprinkled liberally throughout the action. Then there is the sleazy Cardinal Pandulph (Catholic villains being the order of Shakespeare's day), played with relish by company founder Christopher Henley. Bradley Porter offers some excellent atmospheric touches with his sound design, and Elizabeth Ennis' costumes are a careful blend of Medieval and contemporary styles.
There are a few glitches in the course of the performance-overlong pauses between lines as well as a tendency (in some cases) to pause at the end of every line of verse, regardless of whether the punctuation actually calls for it. And perhaps because some members of the company cut their teeth at the Clark Street Playhouse (where WSC Avant Bard used to perform), they still need to scale down their volume and facial expressions to match the smaller confines of their new venue. Overall, however, we have a strong cast well-versed in the Bard's language, with a high level of consistency in the delivery.
Featured in the production photo is Ian Armstrong as King John--photo by Christopher Maddaloni.
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.
King John runs November 1-24 at Theatre on the Run, 3700 South Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington, Virginia. Tickets are available by calling 703-418-4808 or by logging in at http://wscavantbard.org/tickets/.