Richard the Lionheart is dead, so his younger brother John becomes King. However, there is a rival to the throneArthur, 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 productionrunning 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
*Member of Actors Equity Association