Directed by Robynn Rodriguez. Set by Robert Mark Morgan. Costumes by Bill Black. Lighting by Donna Ruzika. Composer/Sound by Barry G. Funderburg. Dramaturg Michael Flachmann. Choreographer Stephanie Ivers. Fights by Jason Armit. With Corey Jones (King John), Zack Powell (Prince Henry) Jeanne Paulsen (Queen Eleanor) Steve Wojtas (Philip the Bastard). Fredric Stone (Philip King of France), Bailey W. Duncan (Arthur), Melinda Pfundstein (Constance), Jeb Burris (Louis the Dauphin), A. Bryan Humphrey (Cardinal Pandulph), Roderick Peeples (Hubert), and others.
Review by Jacob Claflin
Modern theatre companies face some considerable problems when mounting a production of Shakespeare’s King John. The play, unlike the rest of Shakespeare’s history plays, handles many events over a large period in the life of King John. Even Shakespeare’s other standalone history, Henry VIII, focuses on Henry meeting Anne Boleyn and his push for divorce to marry her, ending with the birth of Elizabeth I. Second, the two most well-known aspects of King John’s reign, Magna Carta and Robin Hood, are noticeable absent from the play leaving many modern playgoers with nothing familiar. Finally there is the issue of the hero. While John is the protagonist, he is not a character that audiences seem to enjoy. He lacks the heroic grandeur of Henry V, and the cunning villainy of Richard III. Instead he seems to have traits that mock, or even satirize, Henry V and Richard III. In the 2013 Utah Shakespeare Festival production of King John, the director, Robynn Rodriguez, opted to lean toward a more villainous John.
The USF’s production made use of the staging business to help handle the difficult issues with King John. The outdoor Adam’s stage was covered with artificial grass, as it is in all three productions in that theatre this year. Panels on the frons scenae depicted bare deciduous trees with snow on their limbs. The winter setting paralleled the coldness of many of the characters in the play, as well as perhaps hinting at James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter, a play about the tumultuous relationship of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine (King John’s parents) in which John and Philip of France also appear. Large stone arches reached from the deck of the stage to the lighting grid high above. The overall effect of the stage was to suggest a more rugged outdoor setting, one that seemed to work even for scenes that were clearly inside.
The costumes were period accurate to John’s reign, and at first seem to simply mark who belonged to what faction with color: red for England, blue for France. As the play progressed the color coding became more complicated. Constance and Arthur appeared in purple, suggesting a kind of bridge between England and France. The color choice could also suggest a specific reading of the history, namely that Arthur is the legitimate king in that according to English sumptuary laws the color purple was only to be worn by the monarch and their immediate family. Austria, under his large lion skin, was in a robe of blue fabric with a purple pattern woven in, marking him as an ally of France, and, at least in the beginning, as Arthur’s champion. The colors became further muddled with Salisbury and Pembroke who appeared one in green the other in yellow. This helped to make the separation of John from his nobles more clear in the later part of the play.
The Bastard and Eleanor were clothed in mostly black, while in a strange contrast Hubert and Blanche were clothed mostly in white or light colors. The relationship between Eleanor and the Bastard is obvious from the text both in the lineage and in their unwavering loyalty to John, but the relationship between Blanche and Hubert is not as apparent as the costume colors would suggest. Both characters, however, are involved in making peace between John and Philip, and both eventually find their loyalties divided, Blanche between her new husband the Dauphin and her uncle King John, Hubert between his King and the young Arthur who he is to kill. Though subtle, the costumes keenly conveyed the relationships of characters in the play.
One of the more interesting of Rodriguez’s choices was to have Prince Henry on stage from the opening of the play. In most of the scenes with John, Henry was a silent presence. He was dressed in a costume similar to that of the other men at arms that attended John from time to time, save for a coronet. A few lines usually assigned to random servants were reassigned to Henry, including the lines delivering the news of Eleanor’s death to John. I found this choice to offer a more complex reading of the issue of succession and legitimation that the play is concerned with. Normally Henry’s ability to rule or his legitimate claim on the throne is not an issue in the play. With Henry floating throughout the play this called into question Henry’s ability to rule. Late in the play he follows not his father, but the Bastard, whom many scholars point to being a more suitable king than either John or Arthur, a critique that this production did in fact emphasize. Henry’s presence on stage suggests he is learning from the actions of his father and the Bastard, which will inform his own reign as king of England. The end moment of the play, where the Bastard stands side by side with Henry as he speaks the last lines, suggests he will be more like the Bastard than John, yet Henry’s own seeming weakness after his father’s death offers a possibility that at least at first the Bastard will have some work to do with Henry. Another interesting choice with Henry was his age. Henry was only nine when he assumed the throne, and often he is played as a young boy, a parallel with Arthur in many respects. In this production Henry, played by Zack Powell, was instead a young man, someone who would be in his majority when he became king. This had the effect of isolating Arthur, making him the only child in the play and amplified his childish innocence to the political machinations around him, and his love of Hubert.
King John was played by Corey Jones, who played Aaron in the USF’s 2012 production of Titus with a masterful blend of seductiveness and cruelty. For John, Jones brought a hint of his Aaron to the character, yet where Aaron is successfully seductive, John was almost comically blunt; where Aaron was decisively cruel, John was flatly harsh. Though he was not as successful of a villain as Aaron, Jones’ King John was a villain in this play, not a wishy-washy king who seems at one moment a valiant defender of his own rule against the machinations of the Pope and in the next a tyrant out to kill all who stand in his way to power, but a man obsessed with his power as king and willing to go to any length to preserve that power.
Steven Wojtas’ dynamic Bastard became a foil to Jones’ John. Where John was fickle and changeable, the Bastard, once his mind is made up, sticks to that decision until the end. Wojtas demonstrated the Bastard’s distain for fickleness in his reactions to the marriage of Blanche and the Dauphin, John’s reconciliation with the Pope, and the lords recapitulation with John. Though Wojtas certainly played the comedy that is present in the first few acts for the Bastard, he was able to bring the more noble aspects of the Bastard as they appear in act four and five to the early parts of the play. Even as he joked about his brother’s countenance, he also seemed to hold respect for his brother, and later his mother.
Rounding out the trio of male characters was Roderick Peoples’ Hubert who was at all times a man concerned with peace. The director, Rodriguez, opted to combine the citizen on the walls of Angiers with Hubert, which has some backing in scholarship. This choice allows Hubert to be more involved with the peace between France and England. It also makes the wooing of Hubert by John more questionable. John talks about his great love for Hubert, who at first stubbornly refused to accept John or Arthur as king. It is much easier to believe that John is only playing lip service to Hubert in the wooing scene.
On the other side of the gender coin, Jeanne Paulsen was a commanding presence as Eleanor. Her stately delivery of the lines and erect posture made it clear this was a woman who was used to power. The addition of a cane for Eleanor to brandish gave her a masculine presence on stage, almost as if the cane were a sword. Opposed to Eleanor was Melinda Pfundstein’s Constance. In the USF’s 2012 production of Shiller’s Mary Stuart Pfundstein played Queen Elizabeth I. Pfundstein’s Constance recalled her stately and troubled Elizabeth. Constance, in this production, was after the crown for protection, but also power. Her commanding presence was a potent rival for Paulsen’s Eleanor. Yet, in her moment of grief at Arthur’s capture Pfundstien imbued her Constance with pathos. Though at first Constance seems a woman who is concerned only for power, the loss of her son displayed her deep love and affection. At first glance this may seem to offer an inconsistent reading, yet it instead offers a more complicated character. Constance becomes a woman who is after power and who lets this obsession get carried away until the very thing she loves the most is taken from her. In her grief Pfundstien’s Constance seemed not only to blame John and Philip for their machinations, but also herself for her own part in the capture and death of her son. Rounding out the female characters was Melisa Pereyra’s Blanche, a relatively small part, yet one that comments on the fickle nature of the politics of King John. Pereyra added potency to Blanche, taking her from swooning lover to keen observer of the political power games.
In all, the Utah Shakespeare Festival handled King John with respect. They did not opt to use a heavily conceptual take on the play, setting the action in John’s own twelfth century England and allowing Shakespeare’s language to do the work that the Bard intended. This seems to be consistent with recent productions of King John. Recent productions of Staunton Virginia’s American Shakespeare Company, and San Raphael California’s Marin Shakespeare Company, have used Twelfth century costumes and eschewed heavy concepts, to varying degrees of success. In contrast, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2012 King John opted for a heavy concept, setting the play in the 1980s, allowing it to comment on the Thatcher regime and the politics of that time. This approach was well received by critics.
The USF production of King John handled the problems of staging this play often by ignoring them. The issue of the vast amount of time that the play covers is swept away. Instead the play seems to take place over just a few weeks, as if all the events were part of one historical moment. The issue of the Magna Carta and Robin Hood are, just as they are in the play, completely ignored. Finally Corey Jones’ King John makes the character into more of a villain, and helps to elevate Steve Wojtas’ Bastard into the position of hero (if not protagonist). In all the USF did justice to a notoriously difficult play to stage.