Quick! Name a Shakespeare play – any of the 37 plays we know he wrote.
Did you say Hamlet? Macbeth, maybe? Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream? We’re so familiar with “the big ones” that we often forget that there are a handful of plays we won’t often see in rotation. Luckily, we’re in a fantastic theatre-and-college-town where the uncommon is commonly resurrected for our entertainment.
We’ve seen more of the lesser-known Shakespeares with several productions of Cymbeline and Two Gentlemen of Verona and even a terrific Henry VIII playing through DC in the last few years. We still might get four Hamlets in a single season, but we’ll also get a Titus, or – if we’re really lucky – a King John.
It’s not as though every play with Shakespeare’s name on it is an unparalleled gem, but each of them adds a piece to the puzzle of the kind of ideas this playwright was capable of. He didn’t just give us the profound soliloquies of the Danish prince – he also gave us the truly ridiculous sea-travels of Pericles and his daughter Marina (who is, like Hamlet, abducted by pirates at just the right moment, only this action happens onstage).
Othello isn’t the only one teaching us about choosing our friends more carefully – we also learn it from Timon of Athens who chooses his friends (and spending habits) unwisely. The words – Shakespeare’s words – echo through us in these plays in ways that make humanity and all its flaws somehow divine, and everyone has something to tell us about ourselves.
The first (and last?) time the relatively unknown King John was notably performed in DC was in 1999 at Shakespeare Theatre Company. That production used an altered text incorporating an anonymous playwright’s The Troublesome Reign of King John of England. We may be more familiar with the infamous King John of Robin Hood or The Lion in Winter – a petulant snake – but literary reputations can get out of hand and neglect the true history of the man. (Right, Richard III?)
Closes November 24, 2013
WSC Avant Bard at
Theater On The Run
3700 South Four Mile Run Drive
Tickets: $25 – $35
Thursdays thru Sundays
Happily, WSC Avant Bard is giving us another chance to see this particular Shakespearean history play this fall. WSC hasn’t shied from the lesser-knowns in the past, having given us a sleek and human portrayal of Edward III in 2007 – a play not originally attributed to the Bard, and not usually found in the “complete works,” and a modern stage adaptation of his long-form poem The Rape of Lucrece earlier that year. In Artistic Director Tom Prewitt’s directorial vision, this King John will play out through the eyes of a child and his toy castle. What is a history play, really, but an ongoing game of alliances, betrayals, and jostling for the crown?
As in Henry V, France is causing problems for the king of England as the two monarchs squabble over land and inheritance – but a very different war ensues with much more ambiguous outcomes. Whereas Henry V used stirring rhetoric to sway his troops; King John is often at the mercy of how he’s portrayed in the words of others – certainly something to consider in this world of sound-bites and 24-hour news. The number of strong-voiced female characters in King John is also a modern blessing, and one that influenced Prewitt’s decision to stage this play, says dramaturg Cam Magee, who will also be taking on the roles of Eleanor and Pembroke.
Get out your Shakespeare Checklist, and get ready to cross this one off of it – it may be a long while before you get another chance.
What lesser-known Shakespeare play have you seen performed recently?
We are pleased to welcome Caitlin Griffin, who debuted on our site as a guest commenter on Slings and Arrows.