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The first half of King John zips along so entertainingly at the Lansburghwith its plot reversals and double reversals, bastards legitimized, clerics slugged, princes abducted, and love matches undone before wedding banquets are quite coldthat patrons will likely spend intermission wondering why this least popular of Shakespeare’s history plays is so rarely performed.
They’ll find out in the second half, though not before a kind of Elizabethan impeachment pageant plays itself out, complete with broken oaths, calculated sanctimony from religious leaders, a disenchanted, fiercely partisan conclave sitting in judgment of a head of state, and impassioned, history-in-the-making oratory by those for and against his removal.
The word “impeach” is actually in the script, lest anyone doubt the capacity of the Bard’s language to leap startlingly across centuries. But most of the surprises in King John are unexpected for more prosaic reasons: either because the title character’s behavior qualifies as flat-out peculiar or because contemporary audiences are unfamiliar with the events the play chroniclesunderstandably unfamiliar, because the play is almost never mounted on this side of the Atlantic. (The Shakespeare Theatre’s press releases assert that the Lansburgh production is its D.C. premiere.)
The historical King John is the inept 13th-century monarch who had the misfortune to follow his popular brother, Richard Lionheart (or Coeur-de-Leon), to the throne after Richard was killed in the Crusades. It was John who was forced by disgruntled nobles to sign the Magna Carta, and it was John from whom Robin Hood and his Merry Men hid in Sherwood Forest. Mocked as an idiot in The Lion in Winter and denigrated in a host of other literary works, the guy is such a historical laughingstock that his legacy was even pooh-poohed by A.A. Milne (“King John was not a good man/He had his little ways/And sometimes no-one spoke to him/For days and days and days”).
So it’s no surprise that the character doesn’t make a very prepossessing first impression. Vibrantly played by an alternately snarling and pouting Philip Goodwin, King John is discovered at the Lansburgh slouching on his throne, croaking a period song as his mother, Eleanor (Tana Hicken, who played this same character a month ago in The Lion in Winter at Round House), glares balefully from the sidelines. Obscured initially by a heroic portrait of Richard that will rise to hang accusingly above his every action, Goodwin’s King John appears acutely uncomfortable in his royal robes, and, in fact, sheds them as soon as he’s through alienating a French emissary and thereby squandering an opportunity for peace. He’s so cavalier because he has, as it happens, smaller fish to frya domestic dispute that needs settling between two half-brothers, one of whom turns out to be John’s bastard nephew, Philip (Edward Gero), who has royal smarts aplenty and would prove royally invaluable if only the king knew how to use him.
Instead, John heads off to do battle with the French, the Pope, his own nobles, and pretty much everyone else with whom he should be forming alliances. As depicted by the Bard, King John has a real knack for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. No sooner have events conspired to repair the breach with France by bringing together John’s niece (Laurena Mullins) and the French dauphin (Sean Arbuckle), than John manages to get himself excommunicated by a crafty Cardinal (Ted van Griethuysen). And when victory on the battlefield allows him to abduct Arthur (Derek Kahn Thompson), the nephew who poses the only legitimate threat to his reign, he manages to turn that opportunity into a disaster as well.
For a play that doesn’t have much of a narrative through-line, King John is positively packed with incident. Michael Kahn’s adaptationwhich incorporates material from The Troublesome Reign of John, King of England, an anonymous Elizabethan work that’s regarded as Shakespeare’s principal source materialfleshes out a story that’s longer on royal squabbling than it is on either poetry or character insight. And Kahn’s resourceful staging makes nearly all of that squabbling urgently engaging, though the play’s structure ultimately defeats his effort to make dramatic sense of it all.
Partly the problem is that King John creates his own catastrophes in the evening’s first half, while he’s merely victimized by circumstance thereafter. But the episodic nature of the story also takes its toll, with characters seemingly illuminated by flashes of lightning when the steady glare of an authorial spotlight would let us see them more clearly. Goodwin’s John is a marvelously human creature, nuanced in every fault, though he’s lord of a decidedly minor dramatic vehicle.
Still, it’s a play that this production makes considerably more involving than it seems on the page, filled with splendid individual moments for actors even if they don’t quite coalesce into a dramatic whole. King John won’t be anyone’s favorite Shakespearean historyit offers neither linguistic flights nor monarchical furies of a transcendent nature. But Kahn’s mounting reveals it as perfectly workable.
The roar of freeway traffic makes casual conversation all but impossible in the house Wendell and Rita Mae share with their bedridden mama in The Last Orbit of Billy Mars. Perhaps that’s why the three of them mostly bark at one another. “Shut that goddamn window.” “Boy, if I could get up….” “But ya can’t, can ya?”
It’s when they’re essentially talking to themselves that they wax eloquent: Rita Mae describing sex in a languorous moan (“Inside your mind a fan is blowing, cooling you off when your engine is hot”), Wendell fingering the keys on his saxophone as he improvises a verbal riff on “the angry, restless highway that never sleeps” outside his window.
This family doesn’t connect through language anymore, though there’s contact of a more basic sortRita Mae changing her mom’s diaper, Wendell raising the table leg he uses as a cane to threaten his bisexual sister when she suggests that she can satisfy a girlfriend better than he ever will (“Deep down inside, every woman is waiting for a man who will make love to her like a lesbian”). And Woolly Mammoth’s playwright-in-residence, Robert Alexander, quickly makes clear that while Rita Mae has just returned to St. Louis after years in L.A., lack of proximity wasn’t the reason for the breakdown in communication. It has more to do with dark family secrets.
Those secrets will come to light when Rita Mae’s one true love, Billy Mars, arrives on the scene, determined to take her back to L.A. with him. Garrulous, sweet, and most of all persistent, he’s seductive with his girlfriend (“The minute you came into my orbit, I knew you had been sent to me”), ingratiating with her mother, and playfully combative with her brother. In any normal household, he’d be greeted with open arms, but in this one, he’s about as welcome as the truck noise from the highway. Rita Mae tries to send him away so she won’t hurt him. Wendell, who has a chip on his shoulder the size of a redwood, tells her ominously, “If you love him, make him leave.” The threat of violence hangs heavily in the air.
Or rather, it should. In Timothy Douglas’ staging, what hangs heaviest is a sense of familiarity. The evening begins on an edgy note, with bristling glares and jazzy soliloquies all around, but for all the throb of passing traffic in Mark K. Anduss’ sound design, there’s precious little forward momentum to the script. It’s an exercise in suspenseful stasis, and Douglas places altogether too much faith in his actors’ ability to maintain tension until the playwright gets around to serving up his grisly denouement.
That ability is somewhat compromised by casting. Craig Wallace, who plays Billy, is a fine actor, perfectly capable of communicating emotional vulnerability, but because he’s strapping and towers over the other actors, you never for a moment believe he’s in the physical danger the script keeps suggesting. Taunya Martin’s haunted Rita Mae and Beverly Cosham’s feisty mama are fine, and Doug Brown’s deeply disturbed Wendell, though unsubtle, is certainly menacing enough. But despite their efforts, attractive design work, and plenty of evocative language, Billy Mars still has the feel of a work-in-progress.
Speaking of works-in-progress, after a bit of restaging and revising, and what was reportedly a great deal of rehearsing, Annie did finally get her gun before she left the Kennedy Center’s Opera House. At the final Sunday matinee, the audience cheered the freshly clarified opening number (Buffalo Bill now sets things deftly in motion), lapped up Bernadette Peters’ first number, “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly” (revamped so that the star behaves like a star rather than a nanny), and stopped the show cold after both she and leading man Tom Wopat broke up (in what I assume are directorially inspired giggles) while performing “An Old Fashioned Wedding.”
That numberwhich also stopped the show in Ethel Merman’s 1966 revivalnow lays to rest all chemistry-between-the-leads cavils so effectively that it could stand to be given a crowd-pleasing encore. Or three. There’s still tightening to be done prior to the official Broadway opening. But if SRO crowds (the show overcame mixed reviews to sell more than a million dollars’ worth of tickets for its final week here) and enthusiastic standing ovations are any indication, the politically corrected Annie Get Your Gun could easily end up a Broadway smash. No business like show business, indeed.CP