It is 1962, and we are in some terrible parallel universe. Nuclear destruction has unloosed itself on the world, and as a mother herds her three children into a fallout shelter, we hear the air-raid sirens – and the clarion voice of Jack Kennedy, stilled near these fifty years now, giving us what counsel as he can. As toxic radiation bathes the world, the family knows it will never again leave the shelter. The youngest of the three children, a lad of ten or so (Ethan Ocasio), turns to his toys. He has lost the only world he ever knew, forever, and so must conjure up a new one.
He has a good big plastic castle, and so the world he devises is full of kings and queens. He catapults seven hundred fifty years into the past, to the time of the rascal King John, which, like his own time, is full of fearsome weaponry and people eager to use it.
They don’t perform Shakespeare’s King John much any more, and that’s a damn shame. When it’s done right – as it is in WSC Avant Bard’s excellent production – it is exciting, provocative, and uproariously funny.
It is also full of grace, and Director Tom Prewitt, to his everlasting credit, has found all the grace notes.
It has an object lesson: the failure to compromise has consequences. This is resonant, believe me, in the ruined fictive world which provides the frame for this telling, and it may also be in ours. The story is this: John (Ian Armstrong), England’s seventh post-Hastings King, has acquired the throne upon the death of his older brother, Richard the Lion-hearted. But the sixteen-year-old Arthur Plantagenet (Connor J. Hogan), the son of another dead older brother, also has claim on the throne. Unsurprisingly, he is championed by the Queen of France, Filipe (the convincingly royal Charlotte Akin; Prewitt has flipped genders on Shakespeare, to the advantage of the play), who sees in Arthur the possibility of reclaiming territories taken from France by John’s father.
The great armies meet at the gates of Angiers, and after much shedding of blood reach a settlement: the thick, enthusiastic Lewis (William Hayes), Dauphin of France, will marry John’s lissome niece Blanche (Rebecca Swislow), and obtain as his dowry some of the territories Henry II took from France. This doesn’t satisfy everyone, of course; Arthur’s mother Constance (Ann Nottage at her hair-tearing best), ambitious to have other people kill and die in her behalf, is outraged; and Richard Plantagenet (the fabulous Bruce Rauscher), bastard son of the Lionheart, is frantic to find an excuse to kill more people. But the most effective opposition comes from the scabrous Cardinal Pandulph (Christopher Henley), who sees in the war some possibility of breaking the spirit of the English King, who has defied the Pope in various ways. He commands Queen Filipe, under pain of excommunication, to resume arms against England, and she, reluctantly and calamitously, obeys.
There are numerous subplots – startling, inventive, and full of insight – but I’m not going to spell them out; if you want to know about them, go see the show. In King John, unlike, say, in Henry IV, Part I, the story’s brilliance is not always easily discernible from the text; that it is so obvious here is a great achievement by Prewitt and his fine cast. Armstrong makes John the Weasel King, whose outer strength hides inner weakness, and whose outer bonhomie hides a soul so foul, petty and full of rage that you can almost smell it. It is the truest way to play the man, both as a Shakespearean character and as a historical figure.
Cam Magee as Elinor of Aquitaine, John’s mother, is full of blunt vigor and spit, and so is a perfect counterpart to Nottage’s Constance, a borderline hysteric. Henley is superb as the snaky Cardinal, every gesture and expression radiating contempt for the Monarchs and Princes he is manipulating. Slice Hicks, criminally underutilized by Washington theaters, gives his customary nuanced performance as Hubert, into whose care the unfortunate Arthur is commanded. And Sun King Davis deserves special kudos for his roaring warrior Austria, who in this telling was the Lionheart’s killer. (In actual fact, Richard I was killed by a French child.) This performance, coming after excellent work in Faction of Fools’ Don Juan and WSC Avant Bard’s Caesar and Dada, marks Davis as an actor to watch.
Rauscher merits a paragraph to himself. Listen, if you ever have a chance to be cast in a Shakespeare play, try to be cast as a bastard. They have the best lines, and here Rauscher devours them like a retired supermodel devouring a Porterhouse. Fierce, fearless, witty and smart, Rauscher’s Richard – even more than King John himself – is the glue that holds the story together. Shakespeare requires the character to make lightning adjustments to changed circumstances, and Rauscher does so convincingly; Shakespeare commands the character to breach the fourth wall and make explanations to the audience, and Rauscher makes it seem like the most natural thing in the world, even at one point stepping out to kiss the hand of the woman sitting next to me. It is a bravura performance; if the rest of the production had been unsuccessful, Rauscher’s work would still make it worth seeing.
But the rest of the production is, in fact, highly successful. Theatre on the Run is an intimate space, but Prewitt handles the challenge of the battle scenes imaginatively. We never forget that we are in the mind of a young child, playing to escape his world’s extinction. Thus the combatants fight with items which might be found in a fallout shelter: a mop handle, a hobby-horse, a kitchen knife. Later they take on Vietnam-era assault rifles, since a ten-year-old boy would probably not be that intent on nailing down period weaponry. This significantly reduces the need, as you can imagine, for elaborate fight choreography.
Closes November 24, 2013
WSC Avant Bard at
Theater On The Run
3700 South Four Mile Run Drive
2 hours, 30 minutes, 1 intermission
Tickets: $25 – $35
Thursdays thru Sundays
Shakespeare, incidentally, telescoped several incidents from John’s eventful reign into a single narrative. John was as remote from Shakespeare’s time as Shakespeare is from our own, but the Bard was still able to construct a picture of a bright, able, morally bankrupt Monarch who couldn’t quite understand how things could go so wrong. He was succeeded by Henry, who was as dim as a toaster, and bland and pious to boot. Henry reigned for fifty-six largely peaceful years.
– Christopher Henley writes for DC Theatre Scene. That fact did not affect this review. –
King John by William Shakespeare . Directed by Tom Prewitt, assisted by Quill Nebeker. Featuring Ian Armstrong, Chuck Young, Cam Magee (who also served as Dramaturg), Rebecca Swislow, Anne Nottage, Kim Curtis, Bruce Alan Rauscher, William Hayes, Charlotte Akin, Connor J. Hogan, Sun King Davis, Slice Hicks, Christopher Henley and Ethan Ocasio. Scenic Design: Joseph Musumeci; Costume design: Elizabeth Ennis; Lighting design: Joseph R. Walls; Sound design: Bradley C. Porter; Properties design: Chelsea Mayo. Fight choreography: Robb Hunter and Craig Lawrence . Stage Manager: Brian Alderman, assisted by Hannah Schneider. Produced by WSC Avant Bard . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.