The Life and Death of King John
nytheatre.com review by Chris Harcum
September 15, 2011
A new company is meshing the plays of William Shakespeare with today’s media-soaked culture. After two years of creating smaller works, the New York Shakespeare Exchange brings its first full-length production to the Access Theater with one of the Bard’s lesser-performed works, The Life and Death of King John. In many ways, it seems fitting to do this type of work near a neighborhood that combines recent tragic events and soon-to-be sleekly modern redesign. This first major offering by this company is ambitious, and bodes well for smart and entertaining work in the future.
The director Ross Williams opens the show by having his ensemble of thirteen actors flood the stage and casually hang out in various areas. The well-appointed set looks like it could have been taken from a pricey condo in Tribeca. The detailed mix of color between the costumes and the set (by Kristine Koury and G. Warren Stiles, respectively) is striking and impressive, suggesting more of a modern television show than merry old England. To pull the play into our time, a video montage is screened. It shows the gross glamour of pop culture, a report on the mysterious death of Russell Armstrong and some concert footage featuring a punk-pop band before news feeds cleverly takes us into the opening of the play. Queen Eleanor, King John, and Chatillion make their arguments in a broadcast from the United Nations on flat screen televisions placed on both sides of the stage.
For those who like Shakespeare but want something more than his greatest hits, this a great play to see. King John is not always an easy play to follow and it demands the audience pay careful attention. It has many good speeches but most of them will not ring any bells. For those not familiar with this play, part of the fun is seeing how elements of it made it into some of Shakespeare’s later works. The plot centers on a man who should not be king, which is reminiscent of Macbeth and Richard III, combined with some of the machinations and shifting alliances in King Lear. A character called Bastard, who is something of a combination of Iago and Edmund, mostly drives the story.
The ensemble does an admirable job with a tough play in a smaller theater. Shakespeare often works most effectively in extreme close-up or at a fair distance. Many of the actors were excellent at achieving clarity with what they were saying but sometimes the heightened speech forced them to play a little larger than is compatible with the intimacy of the Access Theater. This was also troublesome during the fight sequences, which were executed well but seemed a little odd in this space. Some of the more successful scenes were the ones with only two or three actors, such as the one where Arthur begs Hubert not to poke out his eyes. Another great moment was when Arthur almost slips of the edge of a cliff, substituted here with a low bookshelf. The seated ensemble stood and gasped, making their sideline presence make sense. In that one moment I felt the full potential of this company come together.
The strengths of bringing this play into the present are sometimes the biggest obstacles to making it work. While the set looks great, it isn’t always capable of transporting the audience to different locations. Having the actors sit just beyond the playing area after they exit and continue to watch the action of play made things a little murky at times. However, as the play progressed and the furniture was taken out of its original positions, these issues began to dissipate.
For its first production, this company does a fine job at taking on more than most would dare in order to form its own sense of theatricality. As King John says in Act III, “Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale.” Hopefully, the New York Shakespeare Exchange will continue to bring us work without an ounce of dust on it.