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A CurtainUp Review
By Les Gutman
Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale
Vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man.
---Act III, scene 4
King John was not a good man--
He had his little ways.
And sometimes no one spoke to him
For days and days and days.
---A. A. Milne
King John (Ned Eisenberg) was the son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine (Myra Carter), and the brother of Richard Coeur de Lion. He's the grown up version of the bratty kid who ran up and down the halls terrorizing the servants in The Lion in Winter and, yes, he's the one who signed the Magna Carta. But there's none of that historical stuff here.
Brother Richard, who succeeded their father to the throne, is dead. And so is middle brother Geoffrey. Trouble is, Geoffrey had a son, Arthur (Michael Ray Escamilla), whose mother, Lady Constance (Pamela Nyberg), thinks he ought to be king. There are also the usual troubles with the French -- Philip II (Mark Vietor) is king -- and the Church (Innocent III is Pope), but there'll be plenty of time to deal with the repercussions of all that later in the chronology.
Shakespeare has, in fact, thrown us a curve and, happily, director Karin Coonrod never loses sight of the ball. She makes this the Bastard's story, and that's the right instinct. I saw a production in Washington a couple of years ago in which, with much heavy lifting, Michael Kahn successfully kept the focus on King John, but that's very much of an aberration. Coonrod leads with her strongest suit, and that's Derek Smith.
Smith makes one helluva bastard, in the kindest sense of the word. Forceful, engaging and eccentric, his is the commandingly electric presence in this production. Able to see the greater glory beyond the material world, ("Brother, take you my land, I'll take my chance.... My father gave me honour, yours gave land."), this bastard is a perfect counterpoint to Eisenberg's schlumpy medieval mob landlord, a benign Iago to a bitter, ultimately-frail Othello. No king has had a more devoted knight, an astounding fact in a world where expedience is more venerated than loyalty.
The situation across the channel isn't much different. The French king is also inert; the sturdiest backbone in sight is driven not by politics but by maternal forces: Pamela Nyberg's powerful Lady Constance. Her rage, and anguish, and greed, are palpable.
Beyond these improbable poles, which do indeed sustain the production, there's not a lot of rhetoric or action that seems particularly Shakespearean. There are a few very good performances ( Michael Rogers as Hubert stands out in particular), but a fair share of misfires as well (surprisingly including Myra Carter's unimpressive, sometimes cartoonish Eleanor). Doubling also takes is toll.
Physically, there's not a lot to look at, and the absence of more substantial markers is a disservice to the storytelling. There is no set -- the theater's usual thrust configuration has been augmented to make it in-the-round -- and the stage, with a wide stripe of glass replacing some of the floor boards so light can be projected up, resembles little more than the hub of a train station, with the extensively-used aisles as its spokes. Actors seem to take their cue from this notion, often standing around with nothing to do or, I suppose when tired, sitting in one of several front row seats that have been reserved for them.
Costumes are not traditional but whatever they are intended to evoke, they don't. The men have been condemned to wear particularly uncomfortable looking pointed-toe shoes; the bastard's, for some reason, are cowboy boots. Some odd chain-link armor appears more cumbersome than effective. Thankfully, Christopher Akerlind's lighting, on which much depends, is exemplary. There are also a host of gimmicks employed, from a torrent of red rose petals signifying blood (and presumably alluding to the Roses to follow), to a bit of "aerography" that's less dramatic than one might expect.
The mixed result here is more satisfying in its intelligence than in the thoroughness of its execution. Still, it is a worthy staging of a difficult and generally unpopular work. If its themes sound familiar and timely, it's a point not lost on Theatre for a New Audience. It's hard not to see a bit of these players in the New Hampshire primary that follows this review by one day. I'll leave it to others to assign to each candidate a role.