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by Margaret Croyden

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

"King John" by William Shakespeare: A Truly Modern Work
Theater for a New Audience
The American Place Theater
111 West 46th Street
Reviewed February 2, 2000 by Margaret Croyden
"King John," written in 1596, one of Shakespeare's lesser known plays, is obviously a precursor of his "Henry" sagas, and like all his history plays, is strikingly contemporary. Shakespeare was obsessed with understanding political power and the incessant struggle among the nobles for the crown, not to speak of the danger of England's possible defeat at the hands of the French. Before it became united under Elizabeth, England was subject not only to invasions and plots from abroad, but to battles among relatives, courtiers, manipulators, schemers, and politicians-- all anxious for the crown--not unlike politicians everywhere. Though these battles in "King John" take place in the twelve century, after the death of Richard the Lion-Hearted, the conflict is as it has always been. Politics has not changed much, only the time and place.

Richard's younger brother John has been made King, but Arthur, the young son of John's deceased elder brother, claims the crown and the French King Philip supports his demand. Of course, John refuses to capitulate and the war begins. Then, the Bastard son of Richard appears and also demands the crown, but Eleanor, John's mother, persuades him to renounce his wish and join the war. This he does and throughout the play, he becomes an observer, a commentator, a chorus-like character, commenting on the follies of the characters and the nature of power. In a way, the Bastard is the most cunning of all the players in the drama and the most interesting.

Meanwhile, the French Dauphin, although geared for war, is willing to forego the battle to marry the English princess, John's niece, and acquire a dowry of land and riches. Lady Constance, Arthur's mother, however, rages against the deal and swears to continue her son's claim. In the meantime, King John captures young Arthur; the English nobles switch back and forth between friends and enemies (whichever side shows more promise), and the Pope's representative intervenes in the dispute offering to broker a peace with the French. Thoroughly infuriated by such brazen interference, King John excoriates the cleric and in his anger exclaims: "no Italian priest shall title or toll in our dominions"--a statement which results in his excommunication (a foreshadowing of Henry VIII?). However, John changes his mind later and requests the priest wrangle a truce with the French; now it is the French's turn to refuse the offer. Back and forth the plot goes, one moment King John is on the ascendancy, the next, the French, or the English rebels. All of which provides a fascinating picture of political intrigue, with its double talk, greed, ego-driven lies, manipulations, opportunists and murderers. In the end, as always in Shakespeare's history plays, England remains victorious and the monarchy survives. Henry III ascends the throne, after his father John dies, and the courtiers are already kneeling to the new monarch, no doubt plotting another battle.

"King John" is like a modern thriller; easy to follow and much more intriguing. Some of Shakespeare's best lines are in the script. The Bastard's famous monologue on "commodity" is one of the more significant speeches. The Bastard knows that everything in politics is bought and sold--commodities--including people like himself. The fashion of the day, the compliance with convention, and rampant opportunism and expediency--all testify to the absence of principles. Which awards the commodities mentality its ultimate victory. Could he be talking about our own time--and all time?

An outstanding scene is Lady Constance's (Pamela Nyberg) grief about her son's capture: "Can any of you know what it is to lose a son, since none of you is a mother?" she cries. But perhaps the most unforgettable and moving scene is Arthur's begging for his life (brilliantly performed by Michael Ray Escamilla) from Hubert (Michael Rogers), his intended killer, who finally agrees to save him. The acting between these two is astonishing.

Derek Smith in the role of the Bastard moves like a wily cat. Using his body with meticulous control to reveal a complicated, calculating character, he is, in the end, responsible for the English victory. Mr. Smith knows how to energize the stage (and the audience) and when he delivers his monologues, one is reminded of an appealing and charming near-villain--a very subtle performance. Ned Eisenberg, as King John, has a difficult role, not as colorful as the Bastard; nevertheless, he gives the part substance and weight. In Mr. Eisenberg's hands, John is a conniving, shallow, vulnerable weasel not too brave or bright-- a totally believable portrayal in an underwritten role.

Karin Coonrod, the director is the real star of the production. She has staged this play with energy and excitement; the pace is exact, the actors never lag, she has cleverly used the aisles, the front row seats, and the balconies so that the action surrounds us on all sides. The dramatic lighting, designed by Christopher Akerlind, emphasizes the character's inner life, and adds a special intensity to the action.

It is always difficult to stage Shakespeare history plays without boring the audience, but Karin Coonrod had avoided all the obvious pitfalls and directed a fast moving production--without changing one word of the text, without modernizing and deconstructing the story, and without upgrading it to the contemporary age. Too often directors have tried to improve on Shakespeare despite the fact that it has been all too clear for centuries that Shakespeare needs no instruction, no help, no diversions, no sappy interpretations, no upgrading, no modern knickknacks. He is, and has been, and continues to be, just perfect as he is. Karin Coonrod knows this--and her "King John" aptly proves the point. [Croyden]

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