14 August 2013

THEATER REVIEW: William Shakespeare’s King John

There’s an acting troupe called Shakespeare by the Sea here in Southern California that puts on Shakespeare plays by - naturally enough - the beach. Usually. In their 15+ years of existence, they’ve enlarged their range to play in venues across the Southland. This year I attended the final performance of King John at their home, Point Fermin Park in San Pedro. It wasn’t a bad performance but there wasn’t anything great about it. Its chief weakness was the actor playing John. He was all wrong in both body language and voice. But I’ll get a bit more into that below.

The Point Fermin venue is a beautiful spot overlooking the Pacific Ocean, though it’s much smaller than my imagination had pictured it. It’s a small stage fronted by 20 rows or so of benches and a wide lawn where people can set up chairs, blankets, or sit at strategically placed picnic tables (as I did) to watch the show. The stage, despite its size, was well used (I’ll opine about the blocking a bit more below, as well). The problems, viewing-wise, were several people who stood behind the benches but in front of the lawn. Fortunately, this only bothered me during the first 10-15 minutes of the play. Having to stand and – I’d like to think – a realization of their obstructiveness soon thinned this impolite herd to nothing, and I had no further difficulties seeing the stage.

A brief summary of the play may be in order since King John is not one of the Bard’s better known works. The play opens with the French and English armies before the walls of Angier (in France). France is backing Arthur, Geoffrey’s son. (Those who remember The Lion in Winter or who know the history of the period, will know that Geoffrey was the third son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and John’s brother. Geoffrey died before Henry but his son had been made Duke of Brittany and – as primogeniture had not been firmly established – he was as eligible as John to assume the throne upon Richard’s death. It helped that John was an awful politician and very unpopular with his barons.) John, of course, is there with his mother (Eleanor) to back his claim. Shakespeare also injects a fictitious bastard of Richard the Lion-hearted who becomes John’s chief lieutenant once his identity is established. And – if that weren’t enough – the Pope also makes an appearance in the person of Pandulph, his legate, who plays both sides in order to secure Rome’s advantage. (In another historical aside: John, during the Elizabethan era, did not enjoy the same reputation as he does in most 21st century minds. To many Protestants of that era, he was something of a hero for his opposition to Rome and considered a proto-Protestant. Thus, his character in this play is more nuanced than one might expect.)

The play proceeds through the political machinations of the two sides, from the initial confrontation, to a marriage between the Dauphin and Blanche, John’s niece, to a breakdown in the alliance, the capture and death of Arthur, and the Dauphin’s invasion of England.

Despite some memorable scenes and speeches, King John lacks the intensity of Shakespeare’s best work. None of the characters are as developed as human beings as are Cordelia, Lear, Othello or Macbeth and his wife, and – in the end – the play is not much more than propaganda: England will bow down to none, whether French or Roman, and as long as it remains true to itself will never be conquered. Potent fare for late 16th and early 17th century audiences; less significant for moderns.

What follows are brief thoughts on the major characters and then a few last thoughts on other aspects of the production. I’m not going to identify the characters. If you’re familiar with the play, you’ll know who I’m talking about; and – if not – there are any number of summaries you can consult.

Chris Aron, as Hubert, was one of the better actors. I thought he flubbed the scene where he realizes John is ordering him to murder Arthur but, otherwise, his voice and presence were good. His scene with Arthur when he obeys his conscience and not the king was well played.

Cylan Brown did a decent job as the Bastard, though his delivery was at times too fast and breathless. Contemplating the production, I think his portrayal was symptomatic of another weakness – the pacing. The play moved too fast. I’m not sure I would have been able to follow what was going on if I hadn’t read/listened to the play several times. But back to the Bastard: More often than not he did a fine job.

Garrett Replogle played Lewis, the Dauphin, and pre-intermission was unimpressive. Post-intermission, though, his portrayal gained zeal and energy. I didn’t believe him anent his love for Blanche in the first acts of the play; but Replogle brought an intensity to his role in the second half that elevated the performance above the average. Which may have been deliberate – contrasting the Dauphin’s pro forma passion for Blanche with his real passion for taking the English throne.

Bridget Garwood, who played Eleanor, like the actor portraying John, was off. Neither her body language nor voice fit the role. (In my opinion. I’m perfectly aware that someone else in the audience may have swooned over her performance). In King John, Eleanor is the agéd mother of John but Garwood carried herself and looked and sounded far too young. I might like her better in younger roles. In the program bio, it says she’s played Calpurnia (Julius Caesar) and the White Witch (Chronicles of Narnia), and I can see her in those roles.

Angela Gulner played Blanche. While gorgeous, she didn’t have much stage presence here. Her big scene where she laments Blanche’s position vis-à-vis John, Philip, Lewis and Eleanor fell flat: “Each army hath a hand, / And in their rage, I have hold of both, / They whirl asunder and dismember me.”

Patrick Vest as John was seriously miscast. Physically, Vest could carry off John but his voice and body language were all wrong. It was too light and frivolous. John needs a darker, more somber interpretation. For me, this mischaracterization was most disadvantageously in view in the scene with Hubert when he purposes Arthur’s death. He doubled as the fight choreographer, and there I can’t fault him. One of the strengths of the production were the fight scenes.

Kristina Teves played Constance, Arthur’s mother. She was by far the best in the cast. Particularly in Constance’s grieving scene, which can so easily slip into campy melodrama. She masterfully conveyed Constance’s overwhelming grief without chewing the scenery. I would have liked to have seen her in some of the other roles mentioned in the program bio: Lady Macbeth and Hamlet.

I’ll mention two points where the company mixed up the scenes. The first I have mixed feelings about. The director moved the last part of Constance’s lament over Arthur to his actual death scene (he throws himself from a parapet), where she appears as a ghost over Arthur’s body (having died herself earlier). While there’s precedent for this in the tragedies (cf., Hamlet), I’m not convinced it’s appropriate in a history. It was effective, however, which is why I’m on the fence. The second case is more easily dismissed as a bad call. It’s the unfortunate decision to not give the Bastard the last word in his impassioned and patriotic speech about England. It robbed the play of its patriotic punch and left the ending a bit flat.

O, let us pay the time but needful woe,
Since it hath been beforehand with our griefs.
This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror
But when it first did help to wound itself.
Now these her princes are come home again,
Come the three corners of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue
If England to itself do rest but true.

Some final thoughts. Lighting, music and blocking were all good. The music was present but not intrusive (as it should be). It reminded me of the incredible integration of music and movie in the first Star Wars film. The blocking wasn’t perfect but the director did well with both the advantages and limitations of her stage.

I fear this review may come across as a rant. It is not. It’s not a rave but I enjoyed the production and will be returning to Shakespeare by the Sea in the future (depending upon what’s playing).

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