Comparisons between King Arthur and Donald Trump are unavoidable. In the similarities column: Both men rule from curved perches—Arthur at his Round Table, Trump from the Oval Office. In the differences column: nearly everything else. Arthur dreams of peace, while the president avails himself of the threat of violence. The British ruler proudly wears his weaknesses on his chainmail sleeve, while Trump postures with a puffed out chest. King Arthur champions the rule of law. On the day I saw Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Camelot the president tweeted about the “rigged Russia Witch Hunt,” saying that those looking into his campaign should instead investigate his political enemies.
Camelot is a political musical—one closely associated with the Kennedy administration—and STC’s artistic director Michael Kahn is “eager to see how it speaks to America today,” according to the production’s program notes. With a trio of superb performances, grand visuals, and a timely political message, the 1960s classic speaks with surprising power in 2018.
Our mythic musical unfurls in the idyllic spot known as Camelot. King Arthur (Ken Clark), ruler of these lands, benefits from the wisdom of his mentor, Merlyn (Ted van Griethuysen). The wizard, like a beardy Benjamin Button, lives life in reverse and knows the future. He has instilled in Arthur an appreciation for thinking, setting him apart from his Dark Age peers (and, perhaps, rulers across time). Arthur brings this sensibility to his throne and creates his Round Table—a new order of knights who value the rule of law and morality, not violence for violence’s sake.
The zealous and egotistical Lancelot du Lac (a delightful Nick Fitzer) will become the most prominent of these knights. But first, he messes everything up. He and Arthur barge in on what seems to be the beginning of a woodland orgy in honor of the month of May (as is customary in Camelot, apparently). Arthur is set on knighting the young Frenchman who unhesitatingly claims he has achieved physical perfection. (In a later shirtless scene, Lancelot provides supporting evidence. For taking place in an era known for full-body suits made of metal, this whole production is surprisingly sensual.) Guenevere (Alexandra Silber), Arthur’s wife, grills Lancelot disapprovingly. Then they fall in love. And with this Arthur-Guenevere-Lance love triangle Camelot’s shine begins to fade.
This troika anchors the show with excellent performances. Fitzer as Lancelot and Silber as a fierce and wise Guenevere share soaring duets, and in a show full of clever staging and striking visuals courtesy of scenic designer Walt Spangler, the pair lying together, surrounded by rose petals, stands out. As King Arthur, Clark delivers the sort of performance patrons chatter about as they empty onto F Street NW. Arthur exhibits the widest range of emotions in this show, and Clark swings from wide-eyed innocence to anger to desperation to hope with believable facility. Take special note of his physicality: In early scenes he scurries about with the kinetic energy of youth, and as time passes and reality catches up to his idealism, he slows.
Reality comes in the second act in the form of Mordred (Patrick Vaill), a newly introduced (and never fully developed) villain. If there’s a criticism to level against Camelot, it’s that its second half is rushed and some plotlines are underdeveloped. Could it all be a commentary on the tenuous nature of peace? Yes. But it still feels hurried. As the show hurtles toward its conclusion, it shares a glimmer of hope. A commanding and cute child (Trinity Sky Deabreu) appears, promising to tell the story of Camelot and Arthur’s vision for the world.
Over time, others have called this an optimistic show. It’s comforting to imagine young children, inspired by tales of the rule of law, singing our praises to future generations. It’s less comforting to imagine the conditions in which those future generations will live, and still less comforting to acknowledge that our utopia is not utopic at all. The show points us to a better tomorrow, but I’m still thinking about Arthur, with his world crumbling around him, calling out for Merlyn. What he wouldn’t give for someone who knows how this will all play out.
To July 9 at 610 F St. NW. $44–$123. (202) 547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.