King John, a Work in Progress
By Anthony Chase
There is something inherently appealing about Lawrence Gregory Smith’s two-hour adaptation of Williams Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of King John. This is a compact retelling of the sprawling story about a king whose throne is contested by his nephew. We are back in the days of Eleanor of Aquitaine, most familiar as the queen who was imprisoned by her own husband in Lion in Winter, and surely one of history’s most spectacular personalities.
As the play begins, four of Eleanor’s five sons are dead, and her remaining son, John, is the King of England. Some folks in the play argue that Arthur, who is John’s nephew, should rightfully be king. After all, Arthur is the son of John’s elder brother, Geoffrey, who died before he could ascend to the throne. Geoffrey's widow, Constance, certainly thinks her son, Arthur, should be king, but she is opposed by her formidable mother-in-law, Eleanor.
The play explores how loyalties can shift from side to side, depending upon the advantage to be gained, rather than any clear sense of right.
This is not among Shakespeare’s most popular plays. This production uses a cast of seven, each actor playing multiple roles, and a few puppets. To bring greater clarity to a plot with frequent shifts in trajectory, the evening begins with a jokey introduction in the style of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), a play that comically tells the stories of all 37 of the folio plays in 97 minutes. Here, we get scaled down “King John.” A large Plantagenet family tree graces the wall of the theater to help us navigate the relationships, which the plot and doubling of actors in roles makes challenging. We are introduced to the actors, and to the roles they are playing. The style is irreverent and includes some obviously rehearsed and entirely un-spontaneous “adlibbing” that is, frankly, rather cloying.
The farcical tone yields mixed results.
The play is, essentially, a tragedy, and includes the deaths of a number of characters, including a child. Given such a playful tone and such a rapid pace, exquisitely expressive language is plowed under, as if with a bulldozer. This language further suffers the great indignity and distraction of some truly horrid mispronunciations. Short shrift is given to the play’s more famed scenes, including the confrontation between Constance and Eleanor: “Do, child, go to it grandam, child./ Give grandam kingdom, and it grandam will/ Give it a plum, a cherry, and a fig!”
The doubling of roles often gives the comical impression that the actors are breathlessly racing from one character to the next without enough time to think. The largest burden in this regard is placed on Marie Costa, who, while quite secure with the language, carries the weight of two of the play’s most formidable characters, Constance, and Philip, the bastard son of Richard the Lion-heart.
Constance, in particular, speaks some of the play’s most expressive language, which is diminished by being tossed about so casually. I lamented the near squandering of her plaintive, “Grief fills the room up of my absent child …” speech. Her thrillingly defiant, “Here is my throne; bid kings come bow to it,” is similarly cast off rather casually. Moreover, Constance is already, as woman who speaks not from her faith but from her need, a character with a double purpose.
Costa has the talent and presence to fill the vacant garments of the role more fully, but there just doesn’t seem to be context or time to sustain such a performance. In that regard, the Life and Death of King John could use more space to breathe.
We are treated to moments of theatrical magic. While using an abstract puppet with a blank face to portray Arthur arguably diminishes scenes between the boy and his mother, and the important scene between the boy and his executioner, I did think that the moment when he jumps to his death, and his wooden dowel body lands on the floor with a cacophonous clatter is marvelous. The set by Chris Wilson does, at times, offer us powerful stage images, as when director Smith places King John upstage center in a dramatically lit altar-like space, as action unfolds below him.
The clever device of having one actor, Jane Dewey, play both the Dauphin of France and Blanche of Spain, with a costume split down the middle, is delightful, but not adequately mapped out and calibrated. Handled so comically, her confrontation with Constance, and her ultimate fate, as uncle is pitted against husband, “Whoever wins, on that side shall I lose,” becomes unintelligible. Still, Dewey throws herself into the fray with unbridled energy – an endearing quality that we get in abundance from this entirely company.
I would argue that the devices that are intended to make the play more accessible, at times serve to render it incomprehensible. Still, the inherently appealing quality, to which I first alluded, is undeniable.
Yes, I yearned to see Costa, an underused actor in this town, given the space to deliver a first-rate interpretation of Constance. I began to imagine her in a roster of great but neglected Shakespearean roles – Catherine of Aragon in Henry VIII; the Queen in Cymbeline. At the same time, I found myself rooting for this eager little company, endeavoring to spin a delicious tale with an abundance of invention and wit.
Connor Caso, a recent Niagara University graduate who is unfamiliar to me, plays King John with spirit and confidence, and is entirely comfortable with the language of the play.
I adored Eric Mowery's air of nonchalance. He projects a sense of inhabiting his roles as casually as garments that can be put on and tossed off again.
Tracy Snyder provides a clear line of clarity, especially as Philip, King of France.
Sarielys Matos is an oddly youthful yet appropriately imperious Eleanor. Gianna Palermo gives her all to her many roles including Chatillon the ambassador from France, and the voice of Arthur.
In the final analysis, I feel as if I saw a workshop of something that could become brilliant once it is calibrated for pace, tone, and clarity. The idea of resurrecting a neglected but wonderful play, brimming with vivid characters and powerful Shakespearean scenes, is a good one. Like the characters in the play, during the performance I found myself switching sides, at times wincing, but at times inspired to pure admiration and delight.