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King John

A Clash of Concepts Strikes a Moral Chord

WSC Avant Bard, Theatre on the Run, Arlington, Va.
Friday, November 15, 2013, Back row (of five) in studio theater
Directed by Tom Prewitt

King John wearing a formal red and gold crown, red velvet cape and business suit sits on a green and whit striped lawn chair, leaning forward with hand over mouth, and a single spotlight shines down from the ceiling
Ian Armstrong as King John sits on his throne in the WSC Avant Bard production of William Shakespeare's King John. Photo by Christopher Maddaloni, WSC Avant Bard.

As President John F. Kennedy speaks over a fuzzy radio transmission, the children of a family, led by a little boy in school jacket and tie, enter their basement fallout shelter (Joseph Musumeci's set design). The boy begins playing with a toy castle and soon his imagination expands to the stage as King John and his entourage enter. Immediately, an interesting concept becomes discombobulated. The 13th century court is wearing formal regalia (capes and crown) over stylish 2013 suits and dresses (Elizabeth Ennis's costume design) in the imagination of a 1962 boy. Such is this swing-and-miss WSC Avant Bard production of William Shakespeare's King John, an enterprise of many interesting ideas that crowd the play off its bearings.

Launching his first season as artistic director of WSC Avant Bard, now in its 24th season but struggling to recover from being evicted from its home last spring, Tom Prewitt is smart to take on this overlooked Shakespeare gem. In his program notes, he draws a personal connection to the play, likening his own early 1960s childhood in Memphis, Tenn., to the super-power stare-down depicted in King John. "Arthur and Henry, the youngest characters in Shakespeare's play, must have experienced similar worries over global events and the potential impact on their lives, and such worries must have seemed to them (as they did to me) terribly real and terribly alarming." Heady stuff, but the allegorical concept ends with that preplay scene setting.

Still, a more interesting concept continues with the idea that this play is being presented through the imagination of a child. Set aside your scholarly adult selves and ego-based fantasies and try to reach back to your own experience with child's play (if you have children, you are closer to the strange, rambling nature of that terrain) and note how the action in this play fits that mentality. King John crowns himself three times; if it's cool and fun to do, kids will always create a way to repeat it. The play starts with three battles over one city, too. Arthur escapes a most cruel death (eyes being poked out with hot irons—there's a child's waking nightmare) only to fall to his death and create great sympathy. A commoner becomes a royal knight, just like that. Even the long speeches have a child's-play quality to them.

Nevertheless, although fifth-grader Ethan Ocasio, playing "The Child," becomes Arthur's body on the pavestones and later takes up the part of young Prince Henry, this child's-play metaphor is not carried out effectively for one reason: blocking. The boy and his castle are at the front of the stage, visible only to the front row of the 90-seat studio theater's bank of chairs. His position should have taken into consideration the potential for full houses (as we had on the night we attended) rather than an empty one, perhaps leaving the boy on the bed at the back of the stage except when he is participating in the action.

Instead, the bed becomes the platform for the throne, a lawn chair that King John (Ian Armstrong) ascends at the beginning of act four, scene two. It's not the dais and lawn chair that are weird but that John, rather than exiting as Shakespeare would have him do, remains sitting there through much of the rest of the play—through Arthur's death, the French invasion, and the English lords' revolt. It's a strange choice given that the talented Armstrong, who presents a flippant John of easy humor and misplaced pride, has to mug his way through some half-a-dozen scenes, not really watching the action but behaving as if he is mesmerized by a horsefly buzzing about his head.

The child's-play metaphor and Cold War connection are just two of five facets that attracted Prewitt to this play. He writes that he was moved by the play's focus on parent/child relationships, and Shakespeare presents 3 1/2 such relationships here: Queen Elinor and John, King Philip of France and Lewis the Dauphin, Constance and Arthur, and the bastard Philip Falconbridge's likeness to his real father, the deceased King Richard I. Prewitt also chose the play for its preponderance of strong female roles, and he provides an additional woman to Shakespeare's count by turning King Philip into Queen Felipe of France. This decision has one payoff in the fine performance by Charlotte Akin as Queen Felipe, but it seems rather arbitrary, and at the least alters the parent/child focus Prewitt is pursuing into a solely mother/child focus, which may be liberating but is also a missed opportunity. Finally, he writes, "The play struck me as a kind of Shakespearean sampler, with overtones of the Bard's greatest hits to come: cunning bastards, power-hungry kings, inconsolable widows, desultory severed heads."

That severed head is a big hit. It belongs to the Duke of Austria who, before he loses his head to Falconbridge, is played by Sun King Davis with outsized bravado. Boisterous and preening, Davis's Austria dominates the Angiers scenes, even though Falconbridge (Bruce Alan Rauscher) has the best lines. The head (Chelsea Mayo's properties design) is a near-perfect match to Davis's real noggin and continues to dominate the action after the rest of Davis has exited the play. One of the production's golden moments comes after Falconbridge places the head on the stage; Elinor (Cam Magee) enters, sees the head and, squealing in delight, rushes to it and picks it up, viewing it as admiringly as she would a pair of open-toe pumps. Later, the head ends up in the hands of The Child, who walks off stage staring at Austria's head staring back at him.

King John not only has an inconsolable widow, it has one of the great widows of all time in Constance, whose late husband, Geoffrey, was John's elder brother (hence, the English crown should have transferred to their son, Arthur, upon King Richard's death). But in Anne Nottage's portrayal of Constance, this production suffers its biggest misstep and reveals a lack of Shakespearean grasp. Nottage plays Constance as an over-the-top stage mom, which hits the mark, even in her shrillness. However, when her Arthur is captured by King John—whom everybody knows cannot suffer the true lineal heir to the English throne to live—Nottage turns Constance's great hair-tearing speech of a mother's grief into the wild ramblings of a crazy lady. Sure, Constance is overdramatic in her grief—that's just her nature—but she strikes a heart chord in us when Cardinal Pandulph accuses her of that, saying, "You hold too heinous a respect of grief," and she replies "He talks to me that never had a son." We need also remember that Constance is grieving for a son who is not dead but doomed to die at any moment. Olivia in Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet excepted, people recover pretty readily from a loved one's death in Shakespeare, so this is an altogether different grief, more akin to the moment you learn a loved one has terminal cancer.

Though her grief is great, Constance as Shakespeare wrote her certainly has not toppled into the kind of insanity Nottage plays, likening her to an 18th century actress's over-the-top depiction of Ophelia (the bug-eyed, frantic flailing performance of this scene unfortunately generated titters among the children in our audience). Cardinal Pandulph's line, "Lady, you utter madness, and not sorrow," is the clue not of her madness but that she is not mad. In Shakespeare's canon, people humor those whom they think are insane, be it Ophelia, Hamlet, Lear, or The Two Noble Kinsmen's Jailor's Daughter (and, notably, Leontes in A Winter's Tale). Not only the Cardinal but King Philip, too, tell her to put a lid on her behavior. "O fair affliction, peace!" Philip says, and then later "You are as fond of grief as of your child." This scholastic point aside, the theatrical impact is the paramount victim here. I'm not sure who chose to have Constance play this scene as madness—Prewitt or Nottage—but it turns the play's emotional centerpiece into a bizarre sideshow.

The emotional core thus shifts fully to Arthur himself, wonderfully played by Connor J. Hogan as a teen-ager who doesn't really want the hassle of being king. Not a slacker, not a coward, he's just simply a mama's boy whose mama is Constance, and that's reason enough for his arrested development. Hogan's Arthur seems to embrace being imprisoned by John because he can then live a life of no responsibilities and develop a true, heart-to-heart relationship with his jailor, Hubert (Slice Hicks).

The men in suits weilding club sticks (Dauphin wears a crown, Austria a cape, Chatillion a Roman helmet), the queen in lavender dress suit with a black cape, jewelled catch, and crown.
Thus enter the French court in the WSC Avant Bard production of King John: from left, Lewis, the Dauphin (William Hayes), Chatillion (Chuck Young), Queen Felipe of France (Charlotte Akin), and Austria (Sun King Davis). Photo by Christopher Maddaloni, WSC Avant Bard

The portrayals of Blanche (Rebecca Swislow) and Dauphin (William Hayes) are rendered with revealing nuance, too. Swislow (who also turns in a fine Salisbury later) opens the play as The Child's older sister, then dons a coronet to become John's niece, Blanche, fighting alongside him until a marriage is brokered between her and the Dauphin to end the war between England and France. Tomboyish, she seems uninterested in marrying the geeky French guy who obviously has no interest in marriage, either. But theirs is a love at first sight, and as you see the notion of romance blooming in her especially, the subsequent division between France and England (wrought by the Pope's excommunication of King John, so that what the church joins the church rips asunder) truly breaks her heart, the play's first tragic consequence. Hayes' Dauphin later comes of age as he proves himself to be his father's son—I know it's supposed to be mother's son in this production, but this Queen Felipe is not as ruthlessly conniving as Shakespeare's King Philip. Dauphin first agrees to Cardinal Pandulph's suggestion to invade England for the Pope's sake and then defies Pandulph when the Pope makes peace with John. Dauphin is looking out only for himself.

King John has Shakespeare's most anticlimactic ending: The title character just dies onstage while other characters are talking. It is, ironically, the moment this production truly comes alive. The Child, now Prince Henry, is suddenly the king, and the lords are bowing to him, led by Falconbridge—which is notable because, as the son of King Richard, Falconbridge could easily stake a claim to the throne as true heir despite his bastard status and use his obvious warrior wherewithal to back it up. Instead, "I do bequeath my faithful services and true subjection everlastingly," he tells Henry as he kneels, and the other lords quickly follow suit.

Then the Bastard gets in the play's last lines: "This England never did, nor never shall, lie at the proud foot of a conqueror, but when it first did help to wound itself.… Naught shall make us rue, if England to itself do rest but true." Shakespearean rah-rah and all that, perhaps, but what was a political lesson for his Elizabethan audience is no less so for our time. As I watch these lords in 21st century suits and modern army combat uniforms display fealty to The Child, I see an allegorical application of Falconbridge's admonition for our own lords and royal wannabes sniping at each other across the Potomac River from this theater.

So yes, U.S., let's stop wounding ourselves; let's bequeath faithful service to the children. If this was Prewitt's intention all along, after so many swings and misses, his King John finishes with a home run.

Eric Minton
November 20, 2013

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