NY Theater Review by JK Clarke
The rivalry between England and France is long-standing and hasn’t always been a peaceful one. Hundreds and hundreds of years (cumulatively) of wars and intense political wrangling—not to mention mountains of petty cultural jealousies—have dominated the relationship between the two most powerful (at least for a time) nations on earth. Consequently, France was a frequent target for Shakespeare in a great many of his plays, most often in the guise of mockery (from the tensions with the Dauphin in Henry V to linguistic sendups of the buffoonish Doctor Caius (Merry Wives of Windsor) and his oft repeated “By Gar!”). But often, as in the case of the play, King John, the tensions were a source of political and historical examination.
As a means of studying England’s perspective on the (even then) very distant past, King John is a fascinating work. As art or entertainment, it’s probably in the lower percentiles of popular Shakespeare plays. Thus, it’s a rare occasion to see a performance of King John. But, happily for Bard-o-philes, the always entertaining Frog and Peach Theatre company has mounted the production at their home in the lovely West End Theatre (within a beautiful old church on West 86th Street).
King John is thick with family, blood and complex politics. Set during John’s reign (notable for the signing of the Magna Carta) in the early 13th Century, the story is launched by the arrival of a French ambassador who demands (as proxy for the King of France) that John surrender the crown to the (supposedly) rightful heir, John’s nephew Arthur. What follows is a series of threats of war (and, of course, actual war), negotiations, strategic marriages, papal excommunication and debates over birth legitimacy. On this last point, King John makes a wise (at least momentarily) decision at the urging of his mother, Queen Elinor of Aquitaine and decides that the dispute, over Philip the Bastard’s legitimacy, be rectified by knighting him. Doing so, John has gained a major ally and the best and most vicious fighter in the present assembly. The Bastard easily dispatches with a few major opponents in battle. After multiple deaths, betrayals and general upheavals result in the end of King John’s reign, the presiding sentiment is that all this bickering just might not be worth it. Oops, too late.
Director Lynnea Benson has, once again, taken a potentially difficult and heavy play and made it accessible and, ultimately, very entertaining. And doing so with such a short run only adds to the impressiveness of the accomplishment. In her hands, the play takes on a vaudevillian nature: there are heroes and villains that we feel ready to boo or cheer out loud. Her well-chosen and enthusiastic cast make King John a rare treat, rather than merely a rare encounter. Eric Doss’ King John is equal parts resolute and reflective. Karen Lynn Gorney plays his scheming mother, Elinor, with just the right amount of tenderness and grit. And Luke Edward Smith plays his bastard nephew, Philip, as a handsome, heroic swashbuckler, balancing out the melodrama. Other notables are Ilaria Amadasi as Blanch of Spain and Randy Howk as Hubert, the Citizen of Angers. And it is rare to see an actor so physically suited to play a medieval church authority than David Elyha as Cardinal Pandulph. Elyha looks as though he walked right out of a monastery to play the role.
One small distraction in the acting is that certain Frog & Peach players seem to have a penchant (in this and previous productions as well) for addressing audience members directly. This can be a useful trope in less substantive plays. But it seems wholly unnecessary with Shakespeare. One doesn’t generally attend a Shakespeare play to be a participant; one generally prefers, nay requires, the ability to focus on and process the complex and information-heavy material being rolled out before them.
It truly is a delight that Frog & Peach chose to mount this play and that they did such an exemplary job with it. For Shakespeare enthusiasts, this opportunity is not to be missed. And for more casual theater-goers, it is a wonderful opportunity to see a unique and historically fascinating play in a beautiful little theater.
King John. Through May 18 at West End Theater (263 West 86th Street, between Broadway and West End Avenue). http://www.frogandpeachtheatre.org/
*click on all photos to enlarge