Wednesday, November 15, 2017

King John (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

This marks the third time (including the BBC effort to do all of Shakespeare's canon) I have seen the play King John from start to finish. Not a most-produced work to be sure. Easy to see why.  Not a play with an obvious hero nor a fascinating villain. It lacks some really exciting war or startling battle, nor for that matter does it contain a love story.

Porters of Hellsgate production made me really appreciate the play for what it is, not an exciting delve into villainy or heroism (with all the complexity of either) but rather on a more subtle issue.  What makes a good king?  In fact, this theme was one Shakespeare explored time and again.  More, he ventured into the thornier question of making the right choice.

Credit: Mike Quain
This marks the first production of this play with that kind of utter focus, and makes it the best yet I've seen.

Never mind historical accuracy for now. Shakespeare never pretended to be an historian but a playwright and poet. Here we meet the title character (Gus Kreiger), younger brother of the noble, enshrined to eternal memory Richard Coeur-de-Lion, as well as the last surviving son of a brilliant mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Hersha Parady). But the play starts off immediately with a problem for the monarch. According to the law, the son of his elder brother Geoffrey should be King not John.  France has taken up the cause of this young Prince, urged on by his mother Constance (Betsy Roth). So immediately we have a contest for England's throne.

Credit: Mike Quain
Rather than give a blow-by-blow of the plot, it all comes down to a deal to keep a war from continuing when neither side has the advantage.  In retrospect, the original audiences would probably compare this to another monarch, Henry V, who braved all when outnumbered five to won, yet prevailed.  But neither John nor his French counterpart (Jacques Freydont) do that, rather insist on making a peace by wedding John's sister (Cindy Nguyen) with the Dauphin (Jono Eiland), thus betraying the widow and her son Arthur (Molly Wear)--a role that could have been so cloying as to earn the audience's hatred but proves one of the best performances in the whole work.

What follows is a crude bit of plotting, bringing in John's contest with the Pope, a deep friendship that develops (mostly off stage) between young Arthur and his jailer, Hubert (Dan White), and sudden turns of fortune. The play has its problems, to be sure.

Credit: Mike Quain
But at its heart we feel the tragedy of King John himself, not so much that he was an evil man, but that he was not worthy of wearing a crown. Kreiger bears most of the weight of this play on his shoulders, doing it with skill.  We see into this man, most especially his vanity (the bright red uniform helps) and his lack of resolve. He longed for respect, and by play's end we so wish he had done what others urged him to in scene one--give up the crown to Arthur. We sense from this seed and example the vicious Wars of the Roses would one day grow.  Just as we realize had John done this, his name would been revered for the rest of time!

A subtle point, but one that echoes in the heart, where all human history is first writ.  And that is what makes this just a fine production, that it brings the human first and foremost before the spectacle (even though--let it be said--the battle scenes are just amazing).

King John plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm through December 10, 2017 at the Whitemore-Lindley Theatre Center, 11006 Magnolia Blvd (west of Lankershim) North Hollywood CA 91602.

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