When I say King John, the only reference most have is either Robin Hood or the Magna Carta. This play from Shakespeare’s earlier career, has not been performed in Baltimore since 1781 (what?). The cover image is very “Game of Thrones” –esque with the swords in back drop, and this play follow suit. What I imagined I was seeing (Shakespeare’s dry, too many characters to name traditional histories) versus the political upset and wonder I witnessed (whoa baby) were far juxtaposed in my mind.
This was a wonderful production. I know, it is a history, and you are going to say, meh, TRUST ME- this is worth your time. This is a political maelstrom, and the characters are defiant, comedic, and often caught off guard. The quick and dirty is this: King John is the King of England and he is at odds with France. King Philip of France sends a messenger to John’s court saying they back his nephew, Arthur, as the King of England, not John. King John decides to hear an argument between two brothers, Philip & Robert Faulconbridge who are squabbling about who is the rightful heir to their father’s land and title. Philip is “the bastard” and Queen Eleanor recognizes him as King John’s half-brother so they knight him and let his younger brother have the spoils. The French and English fight, and fight, and fight, and then try to repair their relationship by marriage- of Blanche to the Dauphin. In the meantime King John is excommunicated due to his recognition of an archbishop, and falls out of favor with Rome. John captures Arthur and pays hitmen to take him out, they fail. Arthur dies anyway of his own dismay, and John wins back the favor of the Church. In the meantime, though, he made some enemies and was poisoned, his son, Henry III taking the throne at the bitter end.
Although villainized by Robin Hood, Dean Carlson is anything but a scoundrel. His title performance as King John is wondrous. He makes a generous and giving king who has human faults, he makes mistakes, tries to correct them with grace, and moves forward toward conquering the world (you know, all in a day’s work for the English monarchy). Dean’s warm smile and charm win over even the Pandulph sent by the Pope to excommunicate him (but takes him back). Zach Brewster-Geisz is the King Philip of France, who serves as the foil to King John, another head of a country hell-bent on war and with little else to define his characterization.
Chris Cotterman is one of the stand outs in this play, as Philip the Bastard. From his stirring dramatic monologues to the audience, to his comedic slapstick with Grayson over the title, to his beheading of the Duke of Austria in retaliation for his father’s murder. Chris is comic, gangly when needed, in use of his sword with ease and style when needed as well. Sian Edwards plays Chatillon, a French Herald, and Pandulph. Her role as Pandluph is fabulous. She comes onto the stage in a comically accurate head to toe red ensemble, complete with bible and hat, and the audience roared. Flynn Harne as Hubert has his best moment in the upper balcony when he taunts the French and English (a la Monty Python) and will open his gates when they decide which of them is the true king. The remarks, hand gestures to shrug them away to play at war, were riotous.
A huge shoutout is also in order to Anne Hammontree as Constance. Her venom in Act 1 as she chants her claims that her son Arthur be King is vicious and scalding. Her grief in Act 2 when she discovers Arthur is dead is devastating and moves the audience to deal with their emotions. Even as she is commanded to stop her hysterical outbursts and tie her hair back, she pretends to listen but never really does what the men tell her. She is an early feminist icon and Anne really brings her to life in the most remarkable performance. Truly commendable.
The cast is rounded by Grayson Owen, most notably as the Dauphin. His depiction of a careless indignant young entitled man is spot on. Jean Miller as Queen Eleanor is the matriarch that is needed to make executive decisions and save the family from disaster. Joe Lewis as the Duke of Austria has a lion’s pelt (he killed Richard the Lionhart), and when Philip the Bastard avenges his father’s death, he wears the pelt for the rest of the play. Sarah Krempasky is the young heir, and other characters, with quick shifts of costume. Tess Garrett is the virtuous and vital Blanche who only is used as pawn in the chess game of power. Jess Behar is the fumbling and young Prince Arthur’s who innocence and big bright eyes save him from demise, only to find it on his own.
The lights at BSF are meant to give an authentic feel, they are just on for the performance. The actors work to project, often over AC, and work hard to make sure you understand each enunciation. The staging is simple, with minimal setting (one chair) and a few props (papers, severed head, etc.) The costumes were done by Kendra Shapanus and are probably authentic in nature, but all look a little uneven. The seams don’t quite seem to line up left to right, on like, everyone. And the Earls at the end look frumpy, not really like nobility. The Lion cape though was well-crafted as were the capes and nod to the red/gold between John and Eleanor. Unfortunately, not only looked over for the throne, but Arthur’s outfit is also a cast off that doesn’t fit well and didn’t get altered. The night I went it was raining and cooler, but the AC was not running and all those layers (again, true to time) are not appropriate for a native Baltimorean in July Heat. The actors all looked like they needed an ice cream when the truck punctuated a good measure of the first act. Jamie Horrell plays the trumpet for us and adds his musical stylings to the pre-show and intermission music.
This was a splendid production, and makes me want to revisit the text of King John, and maybe even some other overlooked histories. Who knows? Maybe some other salty, sassy, persuasively modern political dramas will fall back into style as well.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? You need to see this. This isn’t the same four Shakespeare plays in rotation, it is stellar. The historical play has political upheaval, thwarted kings, marriages of arrangement, arranged murders, and more twists and turns than a soap opera. Sprinkle in a charismatic cast and you have a very, very splendid evening of entertainment.
Running through August 19th at Baltimore Shakespeare Factory. About two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission.