Shakespeare wrote his own game of thrones. It’s called “King John,” although among the English dynastic chronicles known as the history plays, the lumbering “John” is not his best. It doesn’t even make the top five. But it does boast some noteworthy characters — particularly the troublemaking Constance, a royal, self-dramatizing stage mother intent on seeing her son ascend to the throne — and a sometimes juicy discourse on the warps in the monarchic tradition of inheriting the crown.
The play’s full name is “The Life and Death of King John” (some scholars doubt that is the moniker Shakespeare gave it), and in addition to truncating the title to the simpler “King John,” director Aaron Posner has made some clarifying adjustments for which Folger Theatre audiences can be grateful. To wit, a clever prologue has been added to help explain the byzantine plot, involving the factions and kingdoms seeking to put their own favorites on the English throne, and three, count ’em, three, royals and wannabes with claims to rule.
Posner, a playwright and director who has achieved some of his best results at Folger with Shakespeare’s thornier works, demonstrates again with “King John” a deft command of the art of the overhaul. Lacking a truly galvanizing character — the weak and dissembling John is no Henry V or Richard II — the play has neither a satisfying core nor a powerhouse finale. Nevertheless, Posner builds a lucid argument for the play through a fleet handling of the plot mechanics and a fine cast that includes Holly Twyford as Constance, Bryan Dykstra as John and Kate Eastwood Norris as the bastard pretender to the throne, Philip.
And while you won’t come away from this production remarking on a night of superior drama, you will have gratifyingly broadened your knowledge of Shakespeare and your appreciation of Folger’s ongoing campaign to expose audiences to the astonishing range of Shakespeare’s mind and interests.
In “King John,” his curiosity leads him to a contemplation of legitimacy — the political, psychological and spiritual foundation of leadership — as the reign of John is challenged. A son of Henry II, John acquires the crown after the deaths of his brothers Richard the Lionheart and Geoffrey. But a conniving French king (Howard W. Overshown), a meddling papal envoy (Sasha Olinick) and some ambitious relatives at court have other ideas. Constance, given impassioned heft by Twyford, wants Arthur (Megan Graves), her son by Geoffrey, installed. Meanwhile, Norris’s Philip, an out-of-wedlock son of Richard the Lionheart, becomes yet another rival, after King John himself intervenes and declares him, by a legal loophole, a legitimate heir.
“John is now king: Should he be?” is the question Posner poses in the preamble of his own devising. It’s the question that drives the evening and, just as crucially, the paranoia of the king in a court decked out becomingly by costume designer Sarah Cubbage in Victorian bowler hats and petticoats. Andrew Cohen’s set, where the only omnipresent fixture is a wooden throne, reflects the unsettled air of the English realm; above the chair is suspended a primitive crown, awaiting, it seems, the rightful head to fill it.
Dykstra’s John seems the right kind of John for the representation of a realm in disarray. He posits John as unpolished, impatient and prone to rashness; his authorization of his henchman Hubert to dispatch nephew Arthur may not be singular in the bloody history of English royal family affairs, but it does signal his homicidal inadequacy. And by the way, Elan Zafir plays Hubert, torn by affection for Arthur, with such exceptional emotionality that he makes a powerful case for this secondary character to be the humane touchstone for the play. (Twyford’s embodiment of a mother’s grief contributes to another memorable interlude.)
Norris makes a strong masculine impression here. While she’s played Lady Macbeth at Folger twice, her performance as Philip has a reviewer wondering whether she might not also at some point be a remarkable Macbeth, or perhaps even Richard II? Graves and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh are among other cast members who provide sharply defined performances and reveal a masterly ease with the verse.
You’ll have to supply your own answer to the point-blank question about legitimacy this production asks. But it doesn’t take much cerebration to discern how, at a time when the American public anguishes over foreign manipulations in the selection of its leader, the idea at the heart of “King John” pulsates with relevance.
King John, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Aaron Posner. Set, Andrew Cohen; costumes, Sarah Cubbage; lighting, Max Doolittle; original music and sound, Lindsay Jones; production stage manager, Becky Reed. With Akeem Davis, Kate Goehring, Alina Collins Maldonado, Brian Reisman. About 2 hours 20 minutes. $42-$79. Through Dec. 2 at Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St. SE. folger.edu/theatre or 202-544-7077.
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King John is so rarely performed (indeed, it’s been a decade since I last saw it staged) that the current Aaron Posner-directed production at the Folger Theatre opens with a primer on the players and plot to help the audience navigate through the unfamiliarity.
In short: soon after John (Brian Dykstra) ascended to the English throne in 1199, the French King Philip (Howard D. Overshown), in an alliance with the King of Austria (Maboud Ebrahimzedah) decided to back the claim of Constance (Holly Twyford), that her son, John’s 12-year-old nephew Arthur (Megan Graves), the Duke of Brittany, is the rightful wearer of the crown. History records that John would rule until his death in 1216, even if the events seem to flow at a breakneck speed.
The play is so unfamiliar it is oft erroneously described as an early draft of Richard III – but there is little that the two have in common beyond monarchs whom popular memory records as villains – indeed the Bard’s portrait is far more nuanced than John’s frequent appearances as Robin Hood’s “Bad King John.” Whereas Richard’s policies are driven by what we moderns might interpret psychopathy renaissance prejudices that physical disability was a sign of a misshapen soul, John’s villainy is a product of realpolitik, lapses in judgment and the unintended consequences of both.
John had not murdered his way to the top. The crown was forced upon him as three elder brothers died before they could be crowned, and a fourth, Richard the Lionheart, at war. Though he never expected to sit on the throne, John seems surprisingly prepared. He thoughtfully considers advice whether from his mother, Queen Eleanor (Kate Goehring), or Philip Faulconbridge (Kate Eastwood Norris). When nephews are locked in a dispute over who shall inherit the lands of John’s elder brother Richard, he prefers to create a win-win situation, making Faulconbridge his loyal lieutenant.
When the dispute with the French King Philip leads to two armies standing outside the walls of Angers – a city that claims loyalty to the King of England, if only they could decide who the king might be – it is Angers in France who suggests a peaceful solution. But it is John who seizes the opportunity and sweetens the deal so that France might accept it – marrying his niece, Blanche of Spain (Alina Collins Maldonado) to the Dauphin (Akeem Davis) and even offering consolation prizes to his rival claimant Arthur and his mother, Constance. Indeed, we have a rare instance of Shakespearean kings brokering peace – even if it cannot last.
Dykstra brings both gravitas and a conscience to a king, who nonetheless attempts to rise to the role for which he was never expected, while also giving a comic subtext to his insecurity at having his legitimacy repeatedly questioned: He often points to his crown, as if to remind everyone it’s there; his shoes seem to not fit, with his toes catching on steps. Despite his stumbles, he goes toe-to-toe and army-to-army with his chief antagonists, Overshown’s France, Davis’ Dauphin, and Ebrahimzedah’s Austria.
Graves plays Arthur brilliantly as a boy young enough to constantly seek approval from the adults in his life, yet smart enough to read the room. He grasps that the affection he receives is at least partially informed by their dynastic interests and the danger of becoming an inconvenient fact. Graves’ scene with Elan Zafir’s Hubert, in whose care John has placed Arthur, elicits heart-wrenching performances from both actors.
In neglecting King John for so many decades, we have also neglected some of the Bard’s great dramatic roles for women (scarce in the history plays). Particularly noteworthy is Twyford’s intense portrayal of Constance, in which the roles of mother and political actor are entwined as she negotiates her son’s birthright – and all her hopes are dashed and her heart is broken. Yet even in her mourning, she carries the rage that allows her to stand against cardinals and kings. Goehring gives Eleanor the presence as a strategist that makes the Queen’s death palpable as a loss to her son and kingdom. Likewise, Maldonado’s Blanche, who is caught between her two warring families and nations, does not shrink from her role in the fight.
Norris’ Faulconbridge is most self-aware that he is playing a role: as a bastard, his status depends on his king’s patronage and is self-conscious about what it means to act as a noble. Even as Faulconbridge gives his king the most bloodthirsty council at Angers, Norris charms the audience.
Posner makes some unconventional yet powerfully memorable directorial choices. Most notably, rather than relying on a fight choreographer to craft the battle scenes, he uses lighting effects and excerpts from many of Shakespeare’s battle speeches to evoke war through poetry, without ever portraying it. Also gripping is the deft manner that Posner handles both the politicking that nearly causes, and the diplomacy that averts, a slaughter at Angers, and then again how the peace is broken in the next act when Papal Legate Cardinal Pandulph (Sasha Olinick) pries apart France and England’s tight embrace with a threat of excommunication (Shakespeare presents John and Faulconbridge as a Protestants avant-la-lettre.)
Lighting Designer Max Doolittle is the ace up Posner’s sleeve, using color, light, and shadow to represent conflict, violence, loss, and resignation in an abstract manner that always draws attention to the actors’ often visceral performances – in particular, Arthur’s death scene. Sarah Cubbage dresses the cast in late-Victorian/Edwardian fashions, with Blanche’s outfit of a black-and-white checked dress and bowler hat suggesting that she is ahead of her time while using flowers in lapels to represent the dynasties: the bluet de France and the Plantagenet’s common broom. Composer and Sound Designer Lindsay Jones has given the show an appropriately martial score of pipes and drums informed by, but not derivative of, early music.
Dramaturg Michelle Osherow has pared down the original script, giving it a strong sense of symmetry and a momentum that makes 135 minutes seem fast-paced. Unlike other history plays, King John seems to be as focused on statecraft – and the power and failures of diplomacy and negotiation – as it is on war, and at a time when diplomacy seems in tatters, it’s perhaps more relevant than ever.
Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes plus a 15-minute intermission.
DC THEATRE SCENE
Director Aaron Posner has assembled some of the most splendid, certainly several of them among the most beloved actors who tread the local boards. Indeed, Folger Theatre has done further valuable service by bringing King John, a little done and most notoriously challenging play, to their stage.
Posner’s gift is to bring credible, contemporary and complex characterizations to his classical stagings.
The fashion of plays, like the popularity of rulers, comes and goes. There are many good reasons to exhume Shakespeare’s play, which for many years was mostly assigned to the dust heap. For one, the play has some women’s roles in King John that are most plum, and these come alive on the Folger stage deliciously.
The Queen Mum is Eleanor, who may be the most familiar of the characters to many Americans through the film The Lion in Winter. This Eleanor of Aquitaine, now older and a widow of King Henry, is played with wonderful and conniving elegance by Kate Goehring. She may have modulated her manner from her earlier, robust shenanigans with Henry, but she still has ambitions and a dog in this fight, championing son John on the throne. She determinedly stands by him however unfit a leader. Goehring channels something of what we might think of as Eleanor herself, by that I mean she conjures Kate Hepburn. Yes, there is something about the wisps of wiry hair escaping from the done-up knot and her slightly clawed hands (and did I only imagine the slightest whiff of palsy?) She blows in like a stiff and bracing wind, schooling others with her clear-eyed understanding of political expedience.
Holly Twyford gives us a roiling storm of a Constance, who wants to advance the claim of her own son Arthur. (The young adolescent boy is the son of Geoffrey, who was John’s older brother, so the claim has some legitimacy.) The way Constance and Eleanor trade insults is a cat-fight worth the price of admission.
There is also Blanche, King John’s niece, who is dispatched pretty early from the English court, when she is married off to King Philip of France’s son. Alina Collins Maldonado watches the proceedings, where she is used expediently to shore up a shaky political alliance and then almost at once falls victim to her uncle’s wrath and arrogance against the French, with chilling knowingness.
Posner has increased the play’s feminine equation exponentially by having women play men, especially two pivotal male roles in the unfolding drama about rival claims of power and succession. Kate Eastwood Norris plays Philip Faulconbridge, the super-smart, querulous bastard son of Richard I who is soon-in-the-play knighted as Sir Richard by half-brother King John. Watching the shorn-headed Kate embody this self-assured male political strategist pitch herself into the fray, we catch a performer at the height of her powers shape a journey of ferocious intensity in a true portrait of realpolitik.
Megan Graves, who most recently was seen in playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “life-in-a-cubicle” play, Gloria, at Woolly Mammoth, plays Arthur, King John’s nephew, and son to the unhappy and now deceased Geoffrey, John’s elder brother (I told you the play is complicated,) In the fight for power of the throne, Arthur is a pawn played for the highest of stakes and pitiable child in this most unhappy and dysfunctional of extended families. Graves has managed a complete physical transformation, looking the epitome of an adolescent boy from one of the most “posh” British public schools (think Eton or Harrow,) stuffed, as royals are, into little men’s bodies.
If Eastwood Norris is a hurricane, a force of nature that sweeps in and causes major damage, then Graves is an ice-storm throughout the first act, her face frozen, wide-eyed, transfixed. There is so much to be read behind the eyes of this mostly silent witness who seems from the start to telegraph her own sorry end.
Another reason for this being a play for this season is the title role. At the center of this disquieting drama is John, a petulant, narcissistic, choleric tyrant. Luckily, the remarkable Brian Dykstra eschews any parody of he-who-will-not-be-named but rather creates his own deliciously disturbing, multi-dimensional character. The actor alternately rants and cowers, and he fills his performance with little grace notes of detail. The first time he trips on the dais to the throne, his mother gives him a sharp look, and he tricked me into believing it might have been an actor mishap. But he trips again and again on his subsequent “ascents.” He takes off his crown; it doesn’t fit him. Another time, with the Cardinal Pandulf leading a ceremony of reinstatement and “crowning” after recently excommunicating him, he grabs for it like an impatient dog wanting to hold onto his bone. Later he curls into a fetal position.
Posner has chosen a play that holds a mirror up to nature – at least the nature of politics. With people switching allegiances, ratting each other out, quivering from upsetting the status quo, and a king who willy-nilly rules, guided not by astute policy but by his own whims, the production cuts close to the bone of today’s world.
In all the supporting roles prove outstanding actors, and Posner is most gifted in staging moments of who gets the baton to bring a new perspective in telling the story. Howard W. Overshown, as the French King Philip, has this terrible dilemma played out publicly where he is put on the spot to express his fealty to the church (and its supreme power) and his new alliance with the British throne, cemented by the just celebrated marriage of his son to the King John’s niece. His eyes roam around the people sharing the stage and then the audience as if looking for someone (in vain) with a moral compass. Akeem Davis as his son, the Dauphin, gives us a character who grows up very quickly in such a political hotbed, losing his childhood friend (Arthur,) thrust into a marriage, and soon thereafter plunged into a trumped-up war. The haunted eyes of Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Lord Salisbury reflect great pools of despair and displacement, all adding up to solid ensemble-ship.
Nevertheless, there are some hefty challenges to the play.
closes December 2, 2018
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The director has solved one of the play’s greatest challenges to an American audience, that of the ‘too many’ historical characters, in what I’ve come to recognize as a ‘Posnerian’ style: the direct address. A gifted adapter-playwright, he has crafted a prologue where one by one the actors march down stage and in direct address identify themselves, what they’re playing, and, in some narrow way, announce their function. It’s all spoken rapid fire and flat, so that the audience immediately feels grounded and thankful to be watching a modern (albeit deconstructed) work.
Some of the other choices, to my mind, do not provide graceful solutions to the play’s shortcomings. Many have criticized the play in other productions for being slow-moving and heavy-going. Posner has taken the opposite approach with Act I and seems to have gone for the “louder faster” school of modern direction. The sheer level of rant gets tiresome to the ear. But it also causes several of the performers, especially the women, to be vocally thrown time and again “on the ropes.” I detected raggedness in several of the performances, and this was only opening night.
This problem was compounded during the battle scenes by having the actors wield tiny flashlights and click them on-and-off while passing lines at top speed and volume. One scene of this was enough. The second time, the same effect was a complete turn-off. To affect the “glare” of the war or perhaps the complicity of the audience, designer Max Doolittle brought in what I’ll call the Peter Sellars’ alienation effect: turning on banks of lights upstage pointing straight out at the audience. Alienating and unnecessary.
The second act settled and offered the most ‘chewy” parts of the production, full of quieter but all-the-more intense emotion. There was also greater focus by having sustained monologues and two-person scenes. Scene followed scene in the most satisfying and mesmerizing way.
Here, Holly Twyford comes into her own. As Constance she drifts onto the stage, barefoot and wild-haired. After years of wrangling for power, thrusting her son into the limelight, the character discovers she has been the undoing of her boy, and she comes unglued. She delivers one the most beautiful and heart-wrenching of Shakespeare’s monologues.
Two scenes between John and his most loyal advisor, Hubert, are delicious and yet hair-raising. Elan Zafir, always striking to watch, creates a lively connection with Dykstra that takes theatrical communion to another level, truly extraordinary. When John tells Hubert to “off” his nephew, they play with looks, innuendo slipped in almost as an aside, and musically “riff” like two great jazz musicians.
All builds psychologically preparing for the climactic scene between the imprisoned Arthur and his keeper, Hubert. Realizing his life is hanging in the balance, Arthur tries everything to win his freedom, playing, pleading, sobbing, and throwing himself physically upon the one man he has finally trusted. I found myself on the edge of my seat and watery-eyed watching the extraordinary Graves and Zafir, the desperate, innocent boy and the tormented, conflicted man.
Sound Design and Original Music by Lindsay Jones moved the play forward in most effective transitions from court to court and cued us to the mounting tension of a world imploding.
I loved the realization of the central set piece (and metaphor) of the throne. With with its high rough-hewn back, it became a handy hat-rack for a crown, a political rallying platform, and later a rampart on which to pillory a head or throw a body off. Likewise, the costumes, by Sarah Cubbage, used layers for texturizing the monochromatic palette. The crumpled, ill-fitted suit of King John was most cleverly chosen.
I would urge everyone to go through hell and high water (which we in Washington have had plenty of both recently) to see this production.
King John. Written by William Shakespeare. Directed by Aaron Posner. Scenic Design by Andrew Cohen. Lighting Design by Max Doolittle. Costume Design by Sarah Cubbage. Original Music and Sound Design by Lindsay Jones. With Akeem Davis, Brian Dykstra, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Kate Goehring, Megan Graves, Alina Collins Maldonado, Kate Eastwood Norris, Sasha Olinick, Howard W. Overshown, Brian Reisman, Holy Twyford, and Elan Zafir. Produced by Folger Theatre . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.
Theater Review: Folger Theatre’s “King John”
“King John” may not be one of Shakespeare’s greats, but Folger Theatre makes it a must-see
Please let there always be a Folger Theatre. In this Age of (Largely Useless) Information in which so much of life is co-opted by an agitated, luminous screen, it is such a rare sensory pleasure to be ensconced in the dark, mock-medieval confines of this intimate little venue, knowing that whatever takes the stage will be urgent, soulful, cerebral and often irreverently funny.
There will be no shortcuts, gimmicks, or monetized lens — rather it will be that high-risk adventure of bringing to life the classical words, stories and ideas that, if they find their twenty-first century synergy, shoot like fireworks through the modern heart and mind. Does it help to be a Shakespeare geek? Sure. Is it required? Hell no. Put simply: Any time spent inside the Folger’s enchanted walls is time well-spent.
So, being the earliest and rather ponderously formed of his so-called historical plays, Shakespeare’s King John () isn’t exactly top of the repertoire. But as envisioned here by director Aaron Posner and his stellar cast, one suddenly wants to ask why? It may have a lesser kind of gravitas and dimension than the plays that came later, but seen with a keen enough sensibility there is still so much here to savor, especially in its language of loss. And that’s the Folger magic all over — they do love a challenge.
Always attuned to what ails and what entertains, Posner brings just the right emphasis to the obsessive, ambitious adults scrabbling for power over the head of a tender shoot of a boy — one who never quite gets why honor matters so little to his elders and supposed betters. The players — immersed in the Folger tradition of not just theatrical, but intellectual engagement — deliver on Posner’s promise, breathing vibrant, quirkily human life into every moment.
Of course, there are some conundrums here, first and foremost being what to do with the convoluted backstory to the drama: the machinations of rule as England vied to maintain control vast swaths of France and the passage of power down none-too-straight bloodlines. Posner solves both with a friendly preamble in which the characters introduce themselves. If it teeters a tad too close for comfort to the kind of toe-curling accommodations found in educational theater, it does save some significant struggles later to follow the elaborate family trees.
And, frankly, once the drama takes hold, there’s no looking back. As the program notes, this was a cast deep into the interpretation during rehearsals and the result is a gratifying ease and the space for real personality. For all-out mind-bendingly consummate skill and manifestation, Holly Twyford’s Constance must ultimately take first mention. As mother to the illegitimate, young Arthur, she advocates as relentlessly as a crazed stage mother for his crown, only to reveal later her keening, unfathomable grief and despair at his loss. Twyford makes both sides of this Constance riveting and believable, delivering her Shakespeare with an extraordinary fluidity. As King John, Brian Dykstra is immensely, messily credible. So joyfully free of the usual “kingly” posturing, he cogitates and angsts, slumps and equivocates, and when frustrated, yells. He is completely convincing as a leader who cannot imagine life without his “borrowed majesty” and yet has no idea what to do with it.
Searingly memorable as the principled Philip Faulconbridge, Kate Eastwood Norris turns the concept of the “trouser role” on its head, delivering her man with unfettered charisma and a beautifully mannered command of the language. In smaller roles, Megan Graves absolutely shines as the oft-tearful young Arthur, plaintively attempting to manage the adults on whom he must depend. As The Dauphin, Akeem Davis brings a memorable warmth and integrity and a masterful command in the language. In the role of the interestingly power female character, Queen Eleanor, John’s mother, Kate Goehring delivers a vibrant energy in her remonstrations, along with a sense of where this John gets his insecurities. As the French king, Philip, Howard W. Overshown keeps it effectively understated and yet maintains the man’s sense of menace.
Continuing in the Folger’s undaunted tradition, this compelling, intimate King John is another small but enduring reason why our phones will never, ever, be enough.
King John runs to Dec. 2 at Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Tickets are $42 to $79. Call 202-544-7077 or visit folger.edu.
So it’s high praise indeed to say about Folger’s King John, going on now until Dec. 2, that it makes you wonder why the show isn’t done more often.
As directed by Aaron Posner in his 20th (!) Folger production, John, chronologically the oldest of Shakespeare’s English monarch history subjects, is neither hero nor villain, neither towering paragon of divine right nor wicked usurper in stolen ermine robes. But, for all that, actor Brian Dykstra, in a layered, involving performance that one suspects would reward repeat viewings, doesn’t take the easy route of playing John as “simply human,” either. This is a king. A flawed, impetuous king to be sure, and not one who oversaw Britain’s finest (or most fascinating) hours, but a king ne’ertheless, and Shakespeare, Posner, and Dykstra work together to give his story heft.
If modern audiences think of King John at all, they think of two things: the signing of the Magna Carta, and the eat-the-rich antagonist of Robin Hood legends. Shakespeare wasn’t about to dive into the politics of the former and the latter is, well, fictional, so instead we deal here with issues of contested succession and the ever-present threat of war with France. Richard I, he of the lion heart, is dead, and the queen mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Kate Goehring is imperial but still welcomely hot-blooded), backs her other son John’s claim to the throne. Not so the French and Austrians, who support the young Arthur (Megan Graves is game even for some of the play’s most frustrating scenes), son of the late Geoffrey, who was older brother to John and younger to Richard.
Much of the action takes place around battles (they very much did not employ a fight choreographer, which was probably a good call) in the British holdings in France, where also along for the ride are Philip Falconbridge (Kate Eastwood Norris finds merriment in what is clearly the writer’s favorite character) the bastard son of Coeur-de-Lion, and Constance, the widow of Geoffrey and mother and ferocious supporter of Arthur. Holly Twyford is terrific in the role, which gets the most famous of the show’s several superlative monologues, but really all of the performances are top-notch. No weak links in this chain.
Costume designer Sarah Cubbage and lighting designer Max Doolittle team up to paint things in lovely shades of grey, with appropriate splashes of blue and red as the mood demands. These are technical aspects that doesn’t just look choice, they also suck the viewer in to the psychology of the piece. There’s a recurring bit of business in which John trips over the platform of his own throne. Like his ill-fitting suit, it isn’t exactly a subtle metaphor, but you like both more and more as the show goes on, and Dykstra does such a great job selling the first stumble, it truly looks accidental. By the time John gets the hang of it, it might already be too late.
The script hits some major potholes in Act 2 — scenes about the murder of children aren’t really about John’s reign so much as they are about making Elizabethan audiences cry — but the suspension system of this ride is strong enough to endure them. Other injuries are self-inflicted. The added backstory introduction is just this side of insulting: There’s exposition in the play, after all, and we can read our programs, thank you. And I wish every aside to the audience didn’t come with a freeze frame and lighting change. But none of these spoil the overall effect, which is cohesive and compelling.
People really should stage King John more often, as long as they can stage it like this.
The real King John of England has a murky reputation. We know him for the Magna Carta. We know him as a villain from the tales of Robin Hood. And, at a stretch, we know him as Shakespeare’s earliest monarch, chronologically. Folger Theatre capitalizes on a chance to tell the rarely-told tale of this questionable king in its current production of Shakespeare’s King John, directed by Aaron Posner.
As the Folger describes, “King Richard ‘the Lionheart’ is dead. His younger brother, John, gains the throne, an inheritance that is instantly questioned by the King of France, who declares that Arthur, John’s nephew, is the true heir to the throne. Against this backdrop of suspicious legitimacy, John maneuvers among a sea of ambitious pretenders, religious politics, familial corruption, and deceptions that threaten the kingdom and his reign.”
The set itself, designed by Andrew Cohen, is strikingly minimal, and its decaying, peeling paint looks a bit similar to a crumbling map. The lighting design, by Max Doolittle, is equally minimal and effective, providing dim setting, stark contrasts, and enclosing spotlights for asides. The costumes serve a similar effect; Costume Designer Sarah Cubbage has decked the cast in crisp, uniformly bi-chromatic modern formal wear, with only a colored boutonniere to indicate national affiliation.
Brian Dykstra is subtle as the title King, and Howard W. Overshown provides an excellent foil in the King of France, showing incredible stillness and expressiveness in the midst of the chaos surrounding him. Maboud Ebrahimzadeh brings tireless strength to all his roles, and here, as Austra, Salisbury, and others, was no exception. Akeem Davis as the Dauphin brought an unexpected and palpable energy to his role, and watching the growth of his character was a highlight.
Yet it is Kate Eastwood Norris, as Philip the Bastard, and Holly Twyford, as Constance, who take this production to its heights. Norris and Twyford are powerhouses in their own rights, and while their onstage interactions are minimal, it is a delight to witness them working together once more. Norris was born for the role of the Bastard, not only walking a perfect line between comedic timing and ironic commentary, but she also takes her character on a seamless arc, bringing him from a downtrodden bastard to embodying his father, Richard the Lionheart. Twyford, likewise, lends enormous empathy to her text and competently holds the stage for monologues lasting, at least in one case, as long as ten minutes.
With this production of King John, it becomes increasingly clear that the Folger excels particularly with the obscure: Shakespeare’s lesser known, or the works of his contemporaries. With the dramaturgy and scholarship and its disposal (provided, in this case, by Resident Dramaturg Michele Osherow), they are especially equipped to tell stories that are new, and perhaps opaque, to an audience, with all the finesse and entertainment of a hit. More than one audience member remarked and wondered after the show why King John was not a more popular play.
What makes this production of King John capable of such commentary is the attention to detail typical of Director Posner’s style. Every moments delivers a touch, a glance, a gesture that enriches or foreshadows – Arthur’s proclivity for balancing on platforms, a quick pat of the throne from the Bastard, John’s clumsiness building up to his death. No movement is without purpose, and anywhere the audience chooses to look closer will prove rewarding.
Conversely, what is equally typical of Posner’s style is an experimental and modern lens that can be hit or miss. In an effort to make the play accessible and familiar, the show begins with the actors speaking directly to the audience, using new dialogue, to explain who their characters are. While helpful, it somewhat missed the mark, in that the audience is told who everyone is, which they could get from the first few scenes, but not the more inscrutable what it is they want. Similarly, in an effort to be aggressively modern, the opening bordered on condescending, for example, describing Queen Eleanor as “England’s first badass queen,” never mind England’s badass queens that predate her. Equally experimental were the battle scenes, which replaced any actual fighting with actors standing in blackout, lighting their faces one by one as they quoted irrelevant fighting scenes from other Shakespearean plays. While creative, it was not immediately obvious what this was meant to mimic, and one is left waiting afterward for the actual battle.
You will never see a better production of King John, and only partially because you are unlikely to see any other at all. Posner’s creativity and eye for the minute, blended with the raw talent and force of this cast, make this an unmissable experience.
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission
Maryland Theatre Guide
Theatre Review: ‘King John’ at Folger Theatre
They say heavy is the head that wears the crown, but it’s even heavier when a rival nation and part of your own family see you as having usurped that crown. Power, family, loyalty, and greed are all examined in one of Shakespeare’s lesser performed plays, “King John,” playing now through December 2nd at the Folger Theatre.
…the Folger Theatre delivers another expertly crafted work of Shakespeare that, even though written hundreds of years ago, continues to resonate today.
Belonging to the “Historical” faction of Shakespeare’s canon, “King John” stands out as being the Bard’s earliest look at the monarchy and politics in Europe. While this may not be one of the more well-known plays of Shakespeare, King John is certainly a well known figure in popular culture. He is the infamous Prince John of the Robin Hood stories; the bumbling, villainous younger brother of Richard the Lionhearted. He has been portrayed on film multiple times, comedically (Richard Lewis in “Robin Hood, Men in Tights,”) dramatically (Oscar Isaac in 2010’s Robin Hood,) and even as an animated lion in Disney’s 1973 version of the Robin Hood legend. Beyond Robin Hood, John is generally regarded as the most despised of the British monarchs, and one of the only positive things attributed to his reign is the signing of the Magna Carta, which was only was done to prevent the open revolt of his lords against him. In fact, Winston Churchill once said that he was “the first king beholden to the law.” Shakespeare’s play doesn’t shy away from criticism of the much maligned royal, but takes pains to portray a more human side of the man as well.
While the Folger theater does a thorough job of setting up the play in the program, they obviously wanted to make sure that even audience members that sneak in at the last minute will know what’s going on. Their tactic for this is an incredibly entertaining one- the entire cast takes the stage and does an informative and comedic introduction to each of their characters. Not only is this intro an effective way to introduce the audience to the historical and political world of the play, but also helps them understand some of the motivations each of the characters has going into the play in an accessible and comedic way. It’s a fantastically effective 4th wall break.
As the play opens, John (Brian Dykstra) has seized the throne after the death of his much more beloved brother Richard, Coeur de Lion. With the support of his mother, the indomitable Eleanor of Aquitaine (Kate Goehring), John legitimizes a bastard son of Richard’s, Philip Faulconbridge (Kate Eastwood Norris) and creates a powerful and loyal ally. And John needs all of the allies he can get, since his other older brother’s widow Constance (Holly Twyford) has rallied the French King Philip (Howard W. Overshown) and his son the Dauphin (Akeem Davis) to her cause- that her son Arthur (Megan Graves) is the true king and John is a usurper. What follows are twists and turns as loyalty is tested, alliances are made and broken, and lives are lost.
In “King John,” the Folger Theatre delivers another expertly crafted work of Shakespeare that, even though written hundreds of years ago, continues to resonate today. Director Aaron Posner presents a humanizing look at a much maligned public figure, and provides a poignant commentary on flawed leaders and leadership in general. Another theme that is examined in this production is the idea of “Commodity.” Philip Faulconbridge references it by name in a monologue within the play, highlighting that it is a vice that few can escape, even royalty. It is one of our basest urges- a desperate greed, a selfish desire of self-promotion. In this play, Commodity consumes nearly all of the characters and comes with a high cost- family, trust, and ultimately several lives.
Dykstra is a compelling John; he is able to be simultaneously menacing and bumbling. There is a running gag where King John will make a kingly decree and then turn around and trip over his throne. While these moments are comedic, they are also humanizing to this character who is often portrayed as cartoonishly evil. Eastwood Norris also impresses as Faulconbridge, who emerges as the best representation of a protagonist in this piece. She is deftly able to switch from the funny moments to high drama with ease; her monologue where she decries humans’ obsession with Commodity, was highly affecting.
One impressive thing about this show is that it presented three incredibly strong yet flawed female characters. Goehring does justice to one of the shrewdest women in English history; the only thing she cares more about than her family, is the power that her family can bring her. Her relationship with her daughter-in-law Constance is so interesting because they both are fighting ferociously for their sons- they are just on different sides of the same issue. Twyford delivers an emotional performance, in turn fierce and morose as the fortunes of her son fluctuates. Alina Collins Maldonado also portrays John’s niece Blanche, who is essentially offered up as an olive branch to the French. She effectively reflects the conflict at being caught between her old family and new in the war of succession.
While the rest of the cast is all strong, there was a particularly compelling relationship between Arthur and his assigned captor, Hubert. Graves was incredibly realistic as a young boy, losing herself in the character even though she lamented playing a young boy yet again in her section of the introduction. She perfectly represented the innocence and studied air of a young prince trying desperately to please his mother and appear regal. Hubert, played by Elan Zafir, started off as a comedic figure, but quickly turned menacing when tasked with a terrible mission. He then showed great emotional depth in an intense scene where he had to make a choice between loyalty and conscience. Brian Reisman and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh both excel in multiple roles, and Overshown and Davis also impress as the father/son French royals.
The set is simple, yet effective (Andrew Cohen, Scenic Design) and the show features fantastic original music (Lindsay Jones). The costumes were a unique choice; they seemed like early 20th century designs, and were vaguely reminiscent of the costumes in Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film adaptation of Hamlet. While all of them were excellent, one particularly amazing piece was the Duke of Austria’s resplendent coat, complete with an impressive mane of fur (Costume Design, Sarah Cubbage.) Perhaps my favorite moments of the piece were the war scenes; the lighting was highly inventive and transportive (Lighting Design by Max Dolittle.)
This production was incredibly nuanced, thought-provoking, and entertaining. This reviewer highly recommends checking out this rarely performed gem before it’s gone.
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes and includes one 15 minute intermission.
Advisory: It includes some smoke effects and is recommended for audiences 14 and older.
“King John” is now playing through December 2nd, 2018. For more information on tickets, please click here.
Whisk & Quill
King John ~ Folger Theatre At The Folger Shakespeare Library
November 1, 2018
Special to The Alexandria Times
That this play is rarely produced, is an enigma. Okay, it doesn’t have maidens frothily cavorting with lords a-leaping, but I couldn’t help thinking that if only I’d seen this as a teenager, much of my angst about studying Shakespeare might have been completely avoided. In King John Shakespeare affords us some of the most expressive language he has ever written. Wish I’d had some of his snappy putdowns in my mental back pocket. “Oh, dunghill,” one of the characters calls another making for a far more effective retort than, “You meanie!”. Amirite?
Apart from Richard II, King John is the only other Shakespeare play written entirely in verse. And though the play’s prose is already lyrically outstanding, six-time Helen Hayes Award-winning Director, Aaron Posner tosses in some of Shakespeare’s greatest lines from a range of his plays, “Let slip the dogs of war”, “Once more into the breach” and “My kingdom for a horse”, for good measure. And we’re off!
Set during King John’s turbulent reign from 1199 to 1216, war is ever present as the fight for ascension to the throne after Richard the Lionheart’s death, threatens John’s tenuous reign. The French want control of the territories, and everyone has a different notion as to who should wear the crown including the Vatican, France, John’s mother Eleanor, Pandolf, Philip Faulconbridge, the Dauphin and Constance, mother to Arthur, John’s young nephew, and ferocious defender of her son’s right. And then there’s the citizens of a French village, Angers (so apropos), who threaten to bar the gates if John becomes king. So pretty much everyone except Philip who is hired on to protect him and Eleanor who stands to lose the family jewels should John be deposed. As Shakespeare puts it, “I have never been so bethumped!”
As King of England, John must fight off all pretenders and wannabes. Watching him wrangle the forces around him and destroy others in his path, is downright exhilarating as the action swings from one war to the next. One particularly effective scene is staged in total darkness. Actors light up their own faces one by one as they recite their lines from opposite regions of the stage.
As expected there is superb acting all around but most impressively from Kate Eastwood Norris in the male role as Philip of Faulconbridge, the bastard son of Lady Faulconbridge by Richard the Lionhearted, and Holly Twyford as Constance, the overly protective mother of Arthur. We are utterly besotted. As Folger’s Artistic Director, Janet Alexander Griffin puts it, “We are thrilled to have the talents of Aaron Posner and this extraordinary cast bring a timely history play of political posturing and covetous transgressions to life… just blocks away from the Capitol building.”