Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
AIRDATE: MAY 27, 2010
Oh, those wacky Plantagenets ! The English royal line would beg, steal, kill, covet or connive – whatever it took to secure or maintain the crown. And they were pretty successful at their plots, intrigues and maneuvers; the lineage was preserved for nearly four centuries — 15 monarchs in all.
Now you have the opportunity to make the acquaintance of one ruler you might not know: King John. Shakespeare’s drama about the ineffectual sovereign is currently in San Diego , where he hasn’t been seen in 40 years. Though the play has largely been relegated to the bottom drawer of history, King John was actually responsible for one really memorable act: he signed the Magna Carta , the prototype for the American Constitution. But that wasn’t of concern to Shakespeare. He was much more interested in the family dynamics and dysfunction – and the ruthless wrangling for the throne.
The 13th century contenders were John, the son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine; Richard, the bastard son of Richard the Lionheart ; and Richard’s younger, legitimate brother, Arthur. There’s plenty of squabbling and side-taking, with overprotective mothers, the King of France and a scheming Catholic Cardinal getting into the act. Lots of juicy discord, tension and conflict.
The play was one of Shakespeare’s most frequently staged works during the Victorian era, but it fell out of favor in the 20th century and is seldom produced.
Now along comes the plucky, risk-taking, recently formed Intrepid Shakespeare Company, whose mission is to render the Bard’s creations in brief, clear, accessible productions. So they’ve trimmed this complex history down to a nimble, lively two hours, and marshaled a large, effective ensemble, under the taut direction of Intrepid co-founders Sean Cox and Christy Yael. The play is re-set in modern times, with contemporary clothes, which underscores the timelessness of the wheeling, dealing, power-brokering – and the “commodity” of power.
The two central performances are knockouts: Tom Hall as the waffling, dependent King John and Sean Cox as the Bastard, his witty, crude and honest supporter who veers perilously between nasty and noble. Their interactions – like many of the intense, searing duets in the play – are passionate and electrifying. And as with the courtiers, audience loyalties also shift repeatedly, as we witness each side’s machinations and explanations. It’s a fascinating piece of history, rife with muscular and poetic language, very well handled by a large and capable cast. “King John” is a truly underrated play, with some terrific characters, and I hereby call for a resurgence of its popularity.
So, get a jump on the summer Shakespeare season… with a lesser-known, rarely seen, intimate and intriguing production. King John will give you his blessing – if he’s still in power when you get there!
“King John” runs through June 6, in repertory with “The Taming of the Shrew,” at The Theatre Inc., downtown.
©2010 PAT LAUNER