Theatre Mirror Reviews - "King John"

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note: entire contents copyright 1997 by Larry Stark


"The Life and Death of King John"

by Wilm Shagsberd
Directed by Tina Packer
Original Music by Eddie Kohler

Scenic Design by William Fregosi
Lighting Design by Richard Marcus
Costume Design by Leslie Cocuzzo Held
Fights by Mark Ingram
Stage Manager Rivka Levine

King John.....................................Damon Suden
Phillip The Bastard......................Fernando J. Paiz
Philip, King of France.........................Kevin Dahm
Hubert.....................................Rob Pensalfini
Queen Elinor..................................Mitali Dhar
Cardinal Pandulph............................Young E. Kim
Constance................................Jenny James Buhr
Lady Faulconbridge (Blanche of Spain)....Elizabeth Stoehr
The Earl of Pembroke......................Ann Marie White
Arthur....................................Portia L. Vesco
Lewis the Dauphin......................Dylan J. McConaghy
Limonges, Duke of Austria.....................Thomas Cork
The Earl of Salisbury.........................Sarah Cohen
Robert Faulconbridge..........................John Giffin
Peter Pomfret...............................Martin Calles
Prince Henry............................Marketa Valterova

Flute...........................................Euree Kim
Clarinet, Bass Clarinte...................Joshua Goldberg
Trombone..................................Wes Sonnenreich
Viola.......................................Jeremy Nimmer
Percussion................................Robert Rucinski


"King John" is either a bad play or an incomplete script for a lost play, depending on which scholars you believe. However, before reviewing the production by The Shakespeare Ensemble at MIT, it would be best to review its program.

In addition to the cast-list and crew-list, there are three pages of notes. First is Kevin Dahm's short summary of the actual history covered by the play, with a Royal Family Tree, that makes clear a lot of the things that people argue over in the play without ever explaining. Then there is "The Story of the Play (according to W. Shakespeare)" which is a precis of its characters and its plot, again pointing out subtleties. The first is indispensible, and the second is useful --- but useful mainly because a decision was made that this production had other things to do than to make these details clearer by the performance.

Then there is a full page of "Director's Notes" signed by Tina Packer, Consulting Director of the Shakespeare Ensemble. The first paragraph begins "I read KING JOHN several times and could not find its themes; each time I thought I understood, sense would sliver away, as if too skittish to be tied down to one story." And the second "However, after we began working on the text, the themes began to emerge of their own accord."

The first suggests that "Directed by Tina Packer" is her signature on the show, if not taking credit for all its creative triumphs then at least accepting blame for failing to remove any possible lapses. The second, however, implies a workshop or laboratory atmosphere where creative input was encouraged from everyone, and perhaps even retained by acclimation. For the purposes of this review, I assume the first is true.

Her main strengths lie in a sense of space, in careful blocking, and the sweep of spectacle. Her processions are always impressive and entrances can be breathtaking.

But in smaller details she literalizes everything, to the point of making all metaphor concrete and external. King John of England and King Phillip of France, clasping hands in friendship, remain as though handcuffed till a meddling Cardinal makes Phillip break away. The braggart brother bruskly upstages his pleading kin not on one line, but on three. Constance not only shrieks and wails the loss of her son and tosses her lovely hair about, but bounces hard fists off her breastbone.

These objectifications can get ludicrous. The Citizens of Angiers, refusing both contending armies their help, are shown as five random actors --- two men, one with full beard --- standing on boxes on an upstage second level, all dressed in the housecoats and hairnets of modern housewives and carrying kitchen utensils.

No doubt these exaggerations are meant to make audiences think not of the play but its implications. But what does it imply when Prince Arthur the pretender and Prince Henry who is crowned on King John's death --- both characters her notes call "saint-like figures" --- are both played by young women, except perhaps sexism?

Even more perplexing are implications to King John's sudden plunge into a torrid, tender love affair with a courtier named Hubert. Their two scenes together, played instead in, say, "Falsettos" would have been movingly eloquent, but what do they say here? Do they remind people that John's brother Richard Lionheart was labeled (in "The Lion in Winter") as bi? Or should they insist that poor King John, wracked with pain and dead nearly nude at the end of the play, wasn't the victim of poisoning by monks, but an AIDS poster-child? Once you start thinkinbg about other things than the play, why should you ever stop?

Considering my feelings about the production, and the ambiguities of the creative process, it would be unfair to say anything about the work of individual actors --- except that the "semester-long class in acting or stagecraft supervised by the Consulting Director" resulted in a wide range of expertise.

And, considering my feelings about the production, perhaps I should indulge an impulse to walk over to the Kresge Little Theater and light a candle to the memory of Joseph Everingham.

This grows long, but I expected this week-end would give an opportunity to review "dueling Shakespeare's" at opposite ends of Massachusetts Avenue. The H/RDC had a much better play, but MIT had a professional director of wide reputation. Both directors decided to do something else than a straight reading, and so a cynic might snarl that each played Shakespeare, and Shakespeare lost. But even without a semester's class the technical skills at Agassiz were better, and the many different things their student director asked or allowed them to do were always more intriguing, more inventive, more theatrical. This is just one irrelevant personal opinion, but I'd have to call it Harvard 1, MIT 0.

Love,
===Anon.

"King John" (till 22 March)
THE SHAKESPEARE ENSEMBLE AT MIT
Sala de Puerto Rico MIT Stratton Student Center, Massachusetts Avenue, CAMBRIDGE
1(617)253-2903

THE THEATER MIRROR, Boston's LIVE Theater Guide
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