Changing of the Bard: King John is bigger than its venue.
Changing of the Bard: King John is bigger than its venue.

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A troupe without a kingdom, WSC Avant Bard has temporarily relocated to Shirlington’s tiny, tucked-away Theatre on the Run following last year’s midseason eviction from Rosslyn’s cash-strapped Artisphere. Luckily, the dinky black venue hasn’t constrained the company’s ambitions, even if, in a season-opening production of King John, it occasionally pushes members of the 14-person cast into the aisles to deliver a soliloquy. During battle scenes, the actors sometimes appear to be parrying and thrusting mere inches from front-row spectators’ faces.

It’s both exhilarating and discomfiting to watch this much energy tear apart a space this intimate; the production projects far enough to cover the five-mile drive to Artisphere. But director Tom Prewitt, the troupe’s leader, seems to relish the chance to overreach. Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.

The characters in one of the Bard’s least popular plays are practicing their own, much bloodier form of career advancement, and it’s clear from the outset that the 13th-century European monarchies are clogged with too much upper management. England’s John (Ian Armstrong, stepping out of a medieval storybook) squares off with France’s Queen Felipe (Charlotte Akin, in a gender-switched role) for control of the city of Angiers, until the two sides agree to strengthen their mutual footholds in Europe through the marriage of Felipe’s son Louis (steely-eyed William Hayes) and John’s niece Blanche (magnetic newcomer Rebecca Swislow).

Familial ties in King John are labyrinthine: Widows, bastards, cardinals, and commonfolk argue over who holds the greatest claim to the throne, everyone gunning for either a piece of the pie or influence over those who already hold it. For much of the play’s last third, Prewitt has John sit silently on his throne, absorbing the actions of others with growing dread. It’s a smart staging choice, an example of overcrowding that helps set the right mood.

Prewitt borrows a framing device from Julie Taymor’s film and stage reimagining of Titus Andronicus: The saga is seen through the eyes of a boy who imagines the action while playing with toys. The child (fifth-grader Ethan Ocasio) sits with his castle set in an impressive 1950s-era fallout shelter designed by Joseph Musumeci. Surrounded by anti-nuke posters, red death flickering through windows behind him, he picks up one piece after another to signal each character’s arrival. (He also plays with a miniature stegosaurus, even though costume designer Elizabeth Ennis hasn’t clothed anyone in dinosaur garb.) It’s a fun idea that could have been exploited more to avoid the sensation that the actors haven’t been properly introduced to their surroundings.

The child and toys lend a playhouse element to King John, also illustrated by the lawn-chair throne and tennis rackets that substitute for weapons. But Avant Bard isn’t kidding around: There’s tremendous ambition at the heart of this production, which is worth the trip to Shirlington. Sure, Prewitt could have tailored his vision to more adequately match its surroundings. But that sort of self-restraint wouldn’t be very Shakespearean.