Jordan Kaplan, Scott Raker and Jacques Roy
BOTTOM LINE: A pretty respectable production of one of Shakespeare's rarely produced plays.
The year is 1199 and John has been crowned the new King of England, despite the fact that King Phillip of France thinks that the young Arthur has rightful claim to the throne. Throw in an arranged marriage, slightly crazed mother, lots of talk about Richard the Lion-Hearted, a saucy Bastard, cool battles, and royal assassination attempts, and you have the groundwork for an intense royal pissing contest for the ages, not to mention all the ingredients of Guerrilla Shakespeare's newest offering of William Shakespeare's King John.
I have to applaud the plucky Guerilla Shakespeare Project for tackling this slightly daunting play. I was really excited to see a production of King John, which is rarely produced, and perhaps for a reason. There is a lot going on. A whole hell of a lot of history is packed into a well condensed two hour and fifteen minute production. While you don't need to know all the historical info, the audience during Shakespeare's time probably would have, which is why it's kind of a hard sell today. This adaptation smartly strips away a lot of the historical specifics, setting the action in a dark, desperate world that kind of reminded me of Mad Max meets Stanley Kubrick. Kudos to Jacques Roy and Jordon Reeves for constructing one of the cooler multi-level, functional sets I've seen in the world of off-off-Broadway offerings. The themes concerning wealth, self interest, and the unwillingness to just all get along for the well-being of the common good are pretty relevant today. Shakespeare urges the audience to admit that our faults and fears are valid, and that ultimately, in the end, we all have to take full responsibility for our actions.
The performances are all quite good. Lena Hart, as the innocent pawn Blanche who is married off to the Dauphin of France for political positioning, is very interesting to watch, and takes a role that could easily have been lost in the shuffle and creates something pretty outstanding. Tom Schwans is also very adept at playing the slightly put-upon Bastard. He handles his multiple monologues with great ease and subtle comic timing that is spot on for this particular role. The rest of the cast also delivers fairly well. There are a few moments that teeter a little on the verge of melodrama, but given that these are pretty intense situations, that can be overlooked.
All in all, I was pleased with this production of King John. That being said, I am a bit of a Shakespeare nerd. So, if you don't really love gritty adaptations of Shakespeare, it might be rough sailing for you at King John. However if you, like me, are intrigued by seeing smart interpretations of a pretty beautiful text that is rarely produced, you will not be disappointed with the Guerrilla Shakespeare Project's King John. It's clear and easy to follow. My only major faults with the production are in fact with the play itself. So don't go expecting the brilliance of Shakespeare's historical and tragic heavyweights such as Hamlet, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Henry IV, or Daddy MacB. Go to see a hip take on a sort of stuffy play, with smart direction by Jordon Reeves, which tries with pretty good success to remain socially relevant and resonant in today's uncertain times.
(King John plays at The Medicine Show Theatre, 549 West 52nd Street, 3rd Floor, through May 23, 2010. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm. All tickets are $18. To reserve tickets call 212-868-4444 or visit www.SmartTix.com. For more information visit www.GuerrillaShakespeare.com.)