WSC Avant Bard King JohnBy David Siegel • Nov 6th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
WSC Avant Bard: (Info) (Web)
Theater on the Run, Arlington, VA
Through November 24th
2:20 with intermission
$25-$35 (Plus Fees)
Reviewed November 1st, 2013
Under the confident direction of Tom Prewitt , an animated, thoroughly lively production of Shakespeare’s King John makes a rare presence in the DC area. It is so rare that your reviewer found in an unscientific search only two DC professional productions over the past decade or so; one by Shakespeare Theatre Company and the other by Taffety Punk.
Well, it is about time and kudos to WSC Avant Bard for taking a chance on a play that is lost in the Shakespearean shuffle to plays with more cachet, louder battles, sweeter kisses and more well-known quotations. There are reasons aplenty to see the production.
So how does Prewitt put his own stamp on King John. Elinor of Aquitaine (Cam Magee) gives Prewitt some directions right at the top, “a strange beginning: ‘borrow’d majesty!'” And we are off, into at first a young boy’s comic book-like play fantasy as he finds himself with his family in a 1960’s bomb shelter with President John F. Kennedy speaking of possible nuclear war. Prewitt also takes full benefit of the major female characters that Shakespeare provided in King John adding clear casting choices to further the strong female presence.
But, first, historically, who was King John? He ruled 1199–1216. He was the son of Henry II of England and Elinor of Aquitaine and father of Henry III of England. You may know Henry and Elinor from The Lion in Winter. John was King after the relatively short reign of his brother Richard, the Lion Hearted. It was the period of the Robin Hood legend, the Magna Carta, consequential wars with the French, and when excommunication from the Roman Church was not to be trifled with. And there were some spats about the malleability of family blood relations and illegitimacy of birth.
For the audience, the Shakespearean world steps lively into view; first with the pop and pow of a comic book’s panels in Act I directly back into the early 13th century as the young boy plays with his castle toy and little plastic people. Then effortlessly the play is no longer a boy’s fantasy, but we are in the dankness of a Middle Ages castle and off we go. Act I is an arch, loud, roaring presentation. After the intermission, the production turns inward as a sobering, tense psychological trip.
King John covers war that rages between the not yet solidified nation-states of England and France, internal English rebellions fester, and heated kinship politics about lineage are front and center. There is plenty of murder and mayhem. Could anyone keep their sanity? Could anyone survive by remaining consistently allied with one faction or another? How far might someone go to maintain his royal throne?
Many in the Avant Bard cast are veterans with backgrounds in Shakespeare. They seem comfortable as close to the audience as they are in the 85 seat Theatre on the Run in Shirlington.
Ian Armstrong’s King John has channeled his inner-Richard Nixon. A decisive presence and man of action at the start, by Act II, he has darken his outlook shrinking his appearance and demeanor with a day-old stubble. He is a character who at first is smart and wily, crafty and devious: one who can argue any point needed, like a skilled debater. Then over time he changes. His eyes dart about nervously. He becomes tentative and unsure. Armstrong personifies losing one’s grip with slumped shoulders sitting in a lawn chair throne.
Cam Magee as Elinor gives a strong, straight forward reading even in her whispers. She is one conniver for the ones she favors, at any moment. When she traded insults and invective with others, she gets right to the point, no quibbler is she; no prissy way of life for her. Charlotte Akin is cast as French royalty, the Prewitt created role of Felipe. In the Shakespeare text the role is a male, King Philip. No matter, Akin is one of authority with searing eyes and pursed lips, ready to pounce.
Chris Henley as Cardinal Pandulph knocked your reviewer socks askew with his ability to stand still and point a long, bony finger into someone’s chest as a verbal and physical weapon. His gaunt face and lean frame covered with a priest’s black cassock and hat made him just plain riveting. He could say anything; it would sound consequential. Bruce Alan Rauscher as Richard Plantagenet, the narrator for the play’s arc, is the legitimated illegitimate royal son of Henry II. At first Rauscher seems to play for laughs as he faces the audience and even sits in an aisle. But, come Act II he is a changed man, his bold slyness and calculation fit.
Slick Hicks take on two roles, that of Hubert, one of John’s close men, and also the leader of a French town not yet decided who to support in the ongoing English-French war. This small man just grows larger in stature in both roles. He imbues struggles to save his town, or not kill someone as King John has asked him to do. He is not actorly; he is genuine. He plays “incredulous” just spot-on, behind thick black rimmed glasses, as an “everyman,” trying to stay alive, using his wits.
Anne Nottage deserved notice for her Constance, daughter-in-law of Elinor and mother of Arthur, perhaps an heir to the throne. She can trade heated words with anyone; insults just don’t knick her. She does not back down. Her deep-set, dark eyes, full face and physical stature become the essence of a fighter. She is one furious woman in Act I holding more than her own in arguing over things not going her way. Then, in the opening Act II as she falls apart before our eyes, over the loss of her son, she goes quite mad “Grief fills the room up of my absent child.”
One other to watch is Sun King Davis, a dominant force, at least when he is all himself. (spoiler alert, to say no more).
And let us praise Ethan Ocasio (The Child). A Northern Virginia fifth-grader, he is more than an add-on, without lines or significance. At the curtain he has travelled his own road in his fantasy to become a real Prince. He nails his lines with competence and feelings.
The set (Joseph Musumeci) is well-accomplished built of floor to ceiling faux stone work and various entryways and stairs. The lighting (Joseph R. Walls) is often shadowy black and white. Color has been drained. There is one particular prop by Chelsea Mayo that is quite a delight; you will see for yourself when time comes. There are several close quarter battle scenes including one in slow motion with prop weapons as young boys conjure them from make-shift found items.
No need to “gild refined gold, to paint the lily” as Shakespeare wrote. See this King John not just to chalk up to your list of Shakespearean plays but because it is good. See for yourself. You will be well rewarded.
Note: There is “Who’s Who in King John” material provided at the door. A good quick summary read before the play begins.
Photos by Christopher Maddaloni
Disclaimer: WSC Avant Bard provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/9872.
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on ShowBizRadio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, Alexandria's American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with Arlington's American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.