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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Marin Shakespeare Company's Inventive Production of the Rarely Produced King John

Also see Richard's review My Fair Lady

Most of Shakespeare's plays are familiar, but this rarely produced historical play is hardly known. It was first performed during the Elizabethan era; since there was such a huge demand for entertainment at the Globe Theatre, it is believed King John would have been produced immediately following the writing of the play. The historical drama became popular in the 18th and 19th centuries when narrative and apprehensive sentiment were more in style. Today, Henry VIII and King John are rarely produced.

This marks the third time I have seen this play, the first being years ago at the Swan Theatre at Stratford Upon Avon and the second time in 2006 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Both productions were very serious with little or no humor. Director Lesley Schisgall Currier decided to put more focus on comedy, especially in the roles of Philip Faulconbridge, also known as Phillip the Bastard (son of Richard the Lionheart), and Cardinal Pandulph, the Pope's Legate. She has also cut the production down to two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission. You could say this is a drama for 21st century audiences.

King John is full of long speeches of political and papal scheming, deceptions, consultations and cunningly twisted logic. My recommendation if you see the play is to get to the amphitheater in plenty of enough time to read the story of King John in the program. The director also gives a brief history of the play before it starts.

Briefly, the drama centers on King John (Scott Coopwood), the weak son of King Henry I and brother to the late King Richard the Lionheart. It also involves the pretender to the throne Arthur (Samuel Berston), who was the legitimate son of Richard, now in France under the protection of King Philip (Barry Kraft). Arthur's mother Constance (Liz Sklar) enters into a power struggle, aligning herself to the French King in order to claim the throne of England for her son. The countries go to war; there are also religious conflicts involving the Cardinal Pandulph (Stephen Muterspaugh), the Pope's Legate.

King John is appropriate in today's world since there is talk of the large numbers of dead on both sides and the rivers of blood in the many wars portrayed. It is interesting to see how King John and King Phillip fight and then become friends and then fight each other again. It is also fascinating that Prince Arthur, who had the actual right to the throne of England, is featured prominently in this production.

There are outstanding performances from the large cast, especially Erik MacRay as Philip the Bastard in a smooth and solid performance that is reminiscent of those Errol Flynn costume films in the 1930s and '40s. He almost steals the show in many scenes with his bravura performance, even going out into the audience to sip wine from an audience member.

Scott Coopwood is first rate as King John. He portrays the king as a strong but misguided leader of the nation. Barry Kraft (20 seasons at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) gives a smart performance as King Phillip of France while Liz Sklar gives a great performance as Constance. She is spellbinding in her long recitative of grief. Young Samuel Berston gives a sweet performance as Prince Arthur. Stephen Muterspaugh with his fractured Italian plays Cardinal Pandulph for high camp laughs, which is the first time I have seen this serious role played for laughs (however this does make sense—when the character first appeared in 1596, the Church of England had broken with the Church of Rome and so he would be comic character).

Hubert of Angers, a small but pivotal role, is wonderfully played by James Hiser. The scenes between Hubert and King John wherein they discuss the nature of the care of the captive Arthur and moments where Hubert deals with his assignment to kill the young pretender and their consequences are the crown jewels of this play and the production. Other good performances include Alexander Lenarsky as a somewhat effeminate Lewis, the French Dauphin; Maxine Sattizahn as Queen Elinor, King's John's mother; and Brandon Mears, also a very effeminate Chatillon, Ambassador from France to King John. Ellen Brooks is a delight admitting her adultery as Philip's mother.

Mark Robinson's set design is simple, leaving the stage empty for some authentic French and English costumes of the 16th century by Abra Berman. Kudos also to Richard Squeri as the Fight Director for the battle scenes and lighting designer Ellen Brooks for a brilliantly lighted stage.

King John plays through August 12th in repertory with A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Liar at Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, 890 Belle Ave, Dominican University of California, San Rafael. There is a large parking lot for 100 cars now located off Belle Avenue. For tickets please call 415-499-4488. For the dates of this production and the other upcoming shows please visit www.marinshakespeare.org.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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