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A CurtainUp Review
King John


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That smooth facíd gentleman, tickling commodity, . . — The Bastard
Downtown at the Access Theater, the New York Shakespeare Exchange offers a rare treat: Ross Williamsís new production of King John. With a large ensemble cast, Williams retools Shakespeareís early history play to the quagmire of the 21st century. And though Medieval power politics and contemporary culture may seem like strange bedfellows, under Williamsís deft direction, it works.

Williams prefaces the play with the entire cast scattered about the performing space, reminiscent of a posh Soho loft apartment. A TV is tuned to an entertainment news show, and a doziness wafts through the air. The emotional temperature ratchets up when the Bastard (Chris Bresky) enters, his video camera focused on King John (Vince Gatton) and his mother Queen Eleanor (Carmen Meyers). We watch as the Bastard slickly takes a TV remote and flips through the channels and finds a video for a very loud song.

Shocked into awareness, the actors pick up a pulse and move with sharpened intensity throughout the room, replete with hi-tech equipment and chic furniture (set design by G. Warren Stiles). The music blares till another performer takes the remote and changes the channel to a C-span-esque political session that appears to be taking place at the United Nations. In a beat, the ensemble turn their attention to the TV to watch Queen Eleanor, King John and Chatillon (Elizabeth Neptune) onscreen, in a heated political debate.

Williamsís purpose is clearly to draw a parallel between King Johnís troubled England and the state of our own global politics. I admit that this is the kind of Shakespeare I instinctively warm to. Beyond the contemporary setting, Williams reinvented the playís opening scene by inserting his own lines, making the Bastard a distinct presence from the getgo, and giving Queen Eleanor the opening speech. These changes let us see that Queen Eleanor as a power politician in her own right; that her son King John is tied to her apron strings; and that the Bastard is the most forceful character in the play.

Over the years critics have relegated King John to a place among Shakespeare's minor works because its glaring historical omission (King Johnís granting of the Magna Carta) and a conspicuous structural flaw (the play has no clear-cut hero). Even so, Shakespeare outdid himself in this work by inventing one of his most enduring creations, Philip Faulconbridge, the Bastard. This complicated character is the illegitimate nephew of King John and the fictive natural son of Richard I (the Lion Heart). And he will dramatically function during the evening as Chorus, a satirical figure out of a Morality Play, and ultimately as the Voice of England at the playís end. Indeed, the Bastard, through his courage, loyalty to the crown, and his genuine patriotism, ultimately becomes the drama's de facto king.

Although there have been some memorable stagings of King John over the years (the Royal Shakesepeare Company production in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, directed by John Barton in 1974), I canít recall any notable productions in recent years so Williams deserves praise just for staging it. It takes a certain amount of nerve to stage any Shakespeare play. But to stage a little-known minor work like King John takes real chutzpah.

The eveningís most poignant moments unfold during Arthurís imprisonment and death. Both are heart-rending scenes, largely because the young Arthur (JC Vasquez) manages to escape King Johnís cold-blooded plot to murder him in prison. Listening to Arthur pleading for mercy as his appointed executioner Hubert de Burgh poises to blind him with burning irons is quite reminiscent of Gloucesterís brutal blinding in King Lear. When Arthur succeeds in changing Hubertís mind, it seems like a miraculous triumph of right over might. But, alas, once Hubert departs, Arthur climbs on top a towering bookcase, representing the prison walls, and attempts to leap to freedom. And in this intimate theater, you donít just witness Arthurís free-fall to death, you viscerally feel its horror.

The production yields some fine acting. Thereís a truly affecting performance by Vince Gatton, in the title role. In this unenviable part (the renowned critic Harold C. Goddard summed up the character John as the ďunkingliest king Shakespeare ever createdĒ), Gatton aptly balances him as a virtuoso politician and a child who has never grown up. This finely-sustained performance that is well-partnered by Chris Bresky, as the Bastard, whose entrepreneurial energy is all the more underscored by King Johnís inertia.

Carmen Meyers as Queen Eleanor and and Leigh Williams asConstance inhabit their parts with equal ferocity. Meyersís Queen Eleanor gives oomph to her cartoon-like character through her confident manner. Williamsís Constance is superb in her grief-stricken scene (ďYoung Arthur is my son, and he is lost!) in Act 3, Scene 3, as she literally lets down her hair (emblematic of madness for Elizabethan audiences), and completely resigns hope that her imprisoned son Arthur will claim his legitimate crown.

Kevin Brewer, as the corrupt Cardinal Pandulph, is rightly chilling as the ecclesiastic. Pandulph (to borrow a phrase again from Goddard) ďanticipates and rolls into one Polonius and Iago.Ē A dreadful mixture indeed!

Shakespeare purists, of course, may object to this reworking, but one canít say Williams has mangled a masterpiece. He's simply has dared to take King John off the shelf, given it new signs of vitality, and skull-shattering power.

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King John
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed and adapted by Ross Williams
Cast: Vince Gatton (King John), Carmen Meyers (Queen Eleanor), Elizabeth Neptune (Chatillion), Philip Mutz (Robert Faulconbridge, Duke of Austria), Chris Bresky (Philip Faulconbridge, called the Bastard), Zac Hoogendyk (Earl of Salisbury), JC Vasquez (Arthur I), Chris Thorn (Philip, King of France), Joshua Jeffers (Lewis the Dauphin), Leigh Williams (Constance), Katelin Wilcox (Blanche, Prophet), Leigh Williams (Constance).
Sets: G. Warren Stiles
Costumes: Kristine Koury
Video Producer: Charles Q. Drexler
Lighting Consultant: Daniel Winters
Fight Choreographer: Alicia Rodis
Stage Manager: Halley Kolker
Access Theater at 380 Broadway Tickets: $18. For tickets, call Brown Paper Tickets on 1-800-838-3006 or visit www.brownpapertickets.com. For more information, visit www.ShakespeareExchange.org.
From 9/15/11; opening 9/18/11; closing 10/02/11.
Wednesday through Sunday @ 8pm.
Running time: 2 hours; 20 minutes with a 10 minute intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 9/15/11
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