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Regional Reviews by Gil Benbrook

King John
Southwest Shakespeare Company

Also see Gil's reviews of Night of the Living Dead, Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike


Liam Thibeault and Maren Maclean
William Shakespeare is continually at the top of the list of the most produced playwrights across the U.S. every season. So when Southwest Shakespeare Producing Artistic Director Jared Sakren jokingly states that their current production of Shakespeare's King John is the Arizona premiere of the play, 400 years after it was written, it comes as a bit of a shock. But since the obscure King John is one of the Bard's least produced plays, it is understandable—the last time the play was on Broadway was almost 100 years ago. While it is one of his lesser known plays it is still a well formed historical drama. Southwest Shakespeare's production has a more than capable cast and expert direction that turn this historical battle for the throne into a high energy political power struggle.

Richard the Lionheart is dead, so his younger brother John becomes King. However, there is a rival to the throne—Arthur, the young son of John's older dead brother Geoffrey. When John gets word that King Philip of France supports Arthur's claim, and that he is sheltering the boy, the plot is set in motion: Two families, two countries, and two Kings are pitted against each other in a battle for the throne.

Southwest Shakespeare has been advertising the play as the "original 'Game of Thrones.'" While there aren't any flying dragons in Shakespeare's tragedy there is plenty of intrigue, sword fights, deaths, and domineering mothers, just like the hit TV show and book series. And there is one very large throne as well. However, in the end, King John, while very entertaining, is more in line with other historical Shakespeare dramas and not the sex charged, blood soaked, pop-culture sci-fi hit.

Director Sakren has assembled a fine cast to take on the historical roles. Beau Heckman delivers a skilled portrayal of the King who is doing everything possible to defend the legitimacy of his throne. As Richard's illegitimate son Phillip, Ross Hellwig is quite good. His narration to the audience is wittily delivered, and while he proficiently gets across Phillip's mischievous side, he is just as good in showing the character's persistence and honorable devotion to John.

Maren Maclean delivers a powerhouse of emotions in her portrayal of Arthur's mother Constance. Her outbursts show her capable range and intensity, and the pained anguish she instills in Constance once her son is captured is superb. As Hubert, the person John assigns to look after Arthur, Jesse James Kamps is terrific; he intuitively shows Hubert's dilemma when forced to do John's dirty work. Clay Sanderson is less successful as King Philip. While he manages to get across the part of a leader, his stiff delivery of the lines is somewhat at odds with Heckman's more well-rounded, intense portrayal of how we think a King should behave.

As, I believe, the two youngest cast members, Liam Thibeault and Hayden Skaggs expertly navigate their way around Shakespeare's lyrical prose with ease. Their youthful exuberance brings moments that are touching and exciting, with Thibeault's portrayal of Arthur particularly impressive.

Sakren's direction is clean and clear, with most of the action happening toward the lip of the stage, which adds to the immediacy and clarity. He also cleverly uses the various entrances into the theatre for his cast to move about, and the second level balcony in the auditorium for one humorous scene, which adds to the dramatic and theatrical feel of the production. Sakren also partners well with fight choreographer David Barker in staging some very realistic and high intensity battle sequences.

While the creative elements are fairly lean, especially the minimal set design by Eric Beeck, they are still quite effective. With the exception of one set element used for a fairly short scene, the only main set piece is a superb, giant throne, which ties in perfectly to the thrust of the plot. Lighting designer Daniel Davisson has crafted some lush stage shots with a lighting plot that follows the action and perfectly directs the audience's focus to the important parts of the stage where the action is unfolding. His use of darkness and shadows for the battle and more dramatic scenes is quite effective. Costume designer Maci Hosler has crafted a series of beautiful and elaborate dresses and tunics from plush velvet, luxurious brocade, and varied patterns and fabrics. They are exquisite. Joshua Martin provides a lush dramatic musical underscore and various sound effects including superb ones for the battle scenes.

Shakespeare's King John is a realistic, intriguing portrayal of a man jockeying for the throne and doing everything in his power to hold on to it. While it's one of Shakespeare's lesser known plays, with no famous "quotable" lines, it does have meaty parts, an understandable story, and is a swift production—running just two hours with intermission. With an almost perfect cast, impressive direction, and fighting scenes that are fast and furious, Southwest Shakespeare's production is not only recommended for Shakespeare fans and Shakespeare completists, but for those who enjoy historical dramas and suspense and yes, even "Game of Thrones" fans.

King John runs through October 25th, 2014, with performances at the Mesa Arts Center, 1 East Main Street in Mesa, AZ. Tickets can be purchased at swshakespeare.org or by calling (602) 535-1202

Director: Jared Sakren
Production Stage Manager: David R. Drescher*
Assistant Stage Manager: Nicole Servage
Scenic Designer: Eric Beeck
Lighting Designer: Daniel Davisson
Costume Designer: Maci Hosler
Sound Designer: Peter Bish
Hair and Makeup Designer: Christy Lindsay
Properties Designer: JennAfer Sankar
Fight Choreographer: David Barker
Music Director: Joshua Martin

Cast:
King John: Beau Heckman
Arthur: Liam Thibeault
Prince Henry: Hayden Skaggs
Queen Eleanor: Kathryn Kellner Brown
Earl of Salisbury: Hope Brown
Earl of Pembroke: Robert Lewis Topping
Earl of Essex: Gary David Keast
Philip Faulconbridge: Ross Hellwig*
Robert Faulconbridge: Zach Ragatz
Lady Faulconbridge: Erica Connell
Executioners: Alex Oliver, Kevin Wathey
Chatillon: Aaron Blanco
King Philip: Clay Sanderson
Lewis: William Wilson
Constance: Maren Maclean*
Count Melun: Noah Brown
Archduke of Austria: Alex Oliver
Hubert: Jesse James Kamps
Blanche of Spain: Alyson Maloney
Cardinal Pandulph: Dion Johnson
Monks: Dion Johnson, Zach Ragatz, Clay Sanderson, Bobby Shook
Messengers, Soldiers, Heralds, Ensemble: Aaron Blanco, Erica Connell, Noah Brown, Dion Johnson, Alyson Maloney, Alex Oliver, Zach Ragatz, Clay Sanderson, Bobby Shook, Kevin Wathey

*Member of Actors Equity Association


Photo: Mark Gluckman/ Southwest Shakespeare Company

--Gil Benbrook


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix



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