For the dozens of productions of Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream there are maybe a handful of productions of the lesser produced Shakespeare plays. That is particularly true for the history plays. The American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia set out five seasons ago to produce all ten of the history play. We are in the homestretch now with the ninth production. If you have never seen a production of King John, get yourself to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia pronto.
King John the play highlights two major events in the life of this scorned monarch of England. King John the character has been dramatized numerous times, usually as the usurping prince during the reign of his crusading brother King Richard the Lionheart. Here Shakespeare places him firmly on the throne working hard to secure his place by capturing a rival claimant to the throne and then fending off a French invasion after King John defies Papal authority.
As in history, King John succeeds his brother Richard to the throne over the true heir by primogeniture Arthur, Duke of Brittany. Arthur's mother, Constance conspires with King Philip II of France to invade and place Arthur on the throne. John gains an unexpected ally when he is called to settle an inheritance dispute between two brothers Philip and Richard Faulconbridge. Recognizing that the elder brother is the bastard son of Richard the lionheart, John knights him and the bastard Faulconbridge soon becomes his greatest military asset. John with the aid of his formidable mother Eleanor strives to get King Philip on their side and eventually an agreement is made between the French and the English in which Philip's son and heir Lewis will marry John's niece Blanche. Arthur is captured to his mother Constance's deep anguish. Just as John seems to have secured his throne, Cardinal Pandulph arrives upon the scene demanding that John show fealty to the Pope. When John refuses the Cardinal excommunicates John and threatens to excommunicate Philip if the French king will not break the alliance. This leads young Lewis to invade England. John flounders as his kingdom is threatened. His lords abandon him after young Arthur's suspicious death, and his greatest confidant, his mother dies. Forced to reconcile himself to the church, the English then miraculously defeat the invading French army. Yet despite this triumph John cannot escape his fate.
This play is filled with fully realized emotionally engaging characters. The acting company of the American Shakespeare Center seem to embrace the opportunity given them to give deeply satisfying performances. Even the smallest role is given full life. A prime example is Chris Johnston as the Duke of Austria. Not many actors can carry off having to wear the pelt of a lion as part of his costume, but Mr. Johnston makes this awkward accessory a natural part of his character's bravado. Grant Davis as the hot-headed dauphin Lewis seems as eager to engage in battle as he is fervent in the few lines he is granted to woo the beautiful Blanche. Rene Thornton, Jr. is imposing as the French King Philip, playing the game of diplomacy to the French advantage.
As the mama grizzly Constance, Allison Glenzer shows why it is such a treat when this natural comedienne is given a dramatic role. Constance is written with her emotions bare upon the surface, and there were signs of tears in the audience as this proud woman is brought to despair over the fate of her beloved son. Ronald Peet makes young Arthur a bright angel of humanity. It is easy to embrace the melodrama inherent in the role, but Mr. Peet makes Arthur wonderfully human.
King John surrounds himself with strong characters who carry out his wishes. Tracy Hostmyer is formidable as the elderly Eleanor yet, while she advises her youngest son, she still gives moments when the dynamic vibrant flirtatious woman of her younger years shines brightly. James Keegan as the loyal Hubert is heartbreaking as he makes the choice whether to obey the king or save the life of the trusting Arthur. Gregory Jon Phelps is completely self-serving as Cardinal Pandulph only caring that the wishes of the Pope reign supreme.
Benjamin Curns is mesmerizing as Philip the Bastard. Channeling his royal father, Mr. Curns embodies the gallant warrior, always remaining loyal to the king, despite the shady circumstances. And John Harrell makes this weak and paranoid king completely fascinating to watch as his travels from threat to threat, seeming to triumph only to make fatal errors that lead to the downfall of this troubled monarch.
There is another wonderful opportunity this season as the American Shakespeare Center is also performing James Goldman's The Lion in Winter, the prequel of sorts to the events in King John. Queen Eleanor, King John and Philip are played by the same actors, Mr. Curns plays Richard the Lionheart in the earlier play. While it is not necessary to see The Lion in Winter before seeing King John, by doing so you may gain additional insight into the characterizations of these older incarnations.
William Shakespeare's King John is being performed in repertory with The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, Cymbeline and James Goldman's The Lion in Winter through November 24, 2012. You can see The Lion in Winter and King John performed on the same day on November 3 and 24. For tickets and other performance information please visit www.americanshakespearecenter.com.