Regional Reviews: Los Angeles
King Charles IIIPasadena Playhouse
And in one way, it works. How wonderful it is to see a play in Shakespearean style which is about characters we actually knowreal, human beings living right now, whom we've seen on television and read about in gossip magazinesacting like Lear or Lady Macbeth. The play opens on Charles and Camilla discussing how Charles had to hide his grief at Elizabeth's funeralhe had to be a leader instead of a sonand it seems such a perfect Shakespearean scene. This is the sort of thing people talk about in Shakespeare plays all the time, but by populating it with figures we know, the play has an immediacy and relatability frequently absent from actual Shakespeare productions. (And it even has a ghost!) As an attempt to modernize Shakespeare by recasting it with characters of today, the play is an absolute success.
But in other ways, the play doesn't quite deliver on its promise. Right after that first Camilla/Charles interaction, Camilla explains to step-daughter-in-law Kate that Charles has become king immediately; they need not wait for his coronation. And I am instantly thrown out of the moment, because, even assuming the audience needs to be informed of how succession works, Kate certainly does not. But Bartlett does not seem to mind that Kate would already know this; the exposition is more important. Were this to happen only once in the play, it might be overlooked, but this happens time and time again. King Charles quickly finds himself in the middle of a political dispute with few options; a member of parliament hints at a solution to him by suggesting he study a particular period of history. But Charles would know this history; he's been studying to be king his whole life, and he certainly doesn't need to be advised of his royal options by a random politician. A subplot involving Prince Harry is similarly implausible; Charles's reaction in particular is ridiculously, even laughably, out of character. But, in retrospect, it is necessary to tell the story Bartlett chooses to tell, so believability again takes a backseat to plot, and the play itself suffers.
The production at the Pasadena Playhouse is mostly well acted. Jim Abele creates a convincing Charlesthoughtful, self-aware, introspective, but ultimately selfish in a "tragic flaw" sense. Adam Haas Hunter gives a measured performance as William, a man who knows he is next in line and is willing to bide his time. As Kate, Meghan Andrews is a powerful woman unwilling to hide behind her husband. Nike Doukas is all about laughs as the ghost who foretells Charles's future. (He initially thinks it's his mother, but is Elizabeth really the ghost who would haunt Charles?) Supporting performances range from the terrific (Mark Capri as Reiss, a member of the palace staff who has seen it all before, and conveys it with a perfectly timed glance or pause) to the unfortunately overacted (Carie Kawa, as the calculating member of parliament, who could use more subtlety).
The production also fails to convey the opulence and elegance of palace life. Alex Jaeger's costumes seem ordinary, not royal. Even fashion plate Kate looks like she's been dressed off the rack. But it isn't just the outfits, there's something amiss with the posture; the royal family here is not standing as straight they should, not carrying themselves as impossibly wealthy and privileged individuals who must have attended years of etiquette classes. Perhaps director Michael Michetti is intentionally trying to make the royals appear like regular folk with regular problems, but in a play which aims for the gravitas of a script done in verse, royal deportment seems the expected choice.
A further note: the start of the second act involves a fairly lengthy sequence in which lights are shone directly in the audience's eyes, causing physical discomfort for many people around me and forcing us all to avert our gaze from the stage. Presumably, Elizabeth Harper chose this lighting design in order to raise the energy level to match the anger of the scene, but the practice of attacking your audience's retinas really needs to stop.
King Charles III has lofty ambitions. The script touches on ideas of free speech, the role of the monarchy in modern times, the conflict between political choices of the moment and the longer view, and the question of how far you can bend a system before it breaks. All of these are worthy topics and welcome on the stage; but in this play, none of them get the in-depth treatment they truly deserve.
King Charles III through December 3, 2017, at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S El Molino Ave, Pasadena CA. For tickets and information, see www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org.
Pasadena Playhouse - Danny Feldman, Producing Artistic Director - presents King Charles III by Mike Bartlett. Directed by Michael Michetti. Scenic Design: David Meyer; Costume Design: Alex Jaeger; Lighting Design: Elizabeth Harper; Original Music and Sound Design: Peter Bayne; Wig/Hair Design: April Metcalf; Casting Director: Nicole Arbusto, CSA; Accent Coach: Nike Doukas; Choral Conductor: Jeffrey Bernstein; General Manager: Joe Witt; Technical Director: Brad Enlow; Production Manager: Chris Cook; Press Representative Davidson & Choy Publicity; Production Stage Manager: Bree Sherry; Assistant Stage Manager: Kathleen Barrett.