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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the August 13, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Drama Review: `King John’

For summer Shakespeare lovers, here is your opportunity

to see Shakespeare’s rarely produced "King John," well directed

and impressively acted at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey.

Paul Mullins’ robust staging certainly proves that this early historical

chronicle is far worthier than its rarity would suggest. Often criticized

for not having a strong central character, King John’s cowardly, cruel,

and singularly repulsive nature is only a small part of the play’s

resolutely political fabric. It is the machinations and maneuverings

of the more impetuously greedy courts of England, France, and even

of the Papacy, that provide this vivid collage with its plethora of

dramatic intrigues.

Well-drawn conspiring characters are seen in every nook and cranny

of the French and English courts. Conspiracy is most conspicuous in

the person of the conniving Pope’s legate, Cardinal Pandulph, here

played with bone-chilling authority by Brian Reddy. Perhaps it was

partly my lack of familiarity with this purposefully lighthearted

tragedy that kept me glued to the consistently interesting turn of

events.

The plot unfolds within the confines of designer Anita Stewart’s single

set, an anteroom, its walls hung with the map of the known world.

As the wars proceed, these royal walls crumble. Though somewhat lean

in its pageantry, the production is visually supported by excellent

lighting effects designed by Michael Giannitti, and enhanced by terrific

musical scoring by composer David Maddox.

Costumer Lora laVon artfully identifies a time and a place. But perhaps

it was more Mullins’ ability to shift my attention from the episodic,

rather stolid, structure of the chronicle onto the idiosyncratic dispositions

of the play’s politically-motivated characters that kept me hooked

from start to finish. If you remember the film "The Lion in Winter,"

you’ll find it easy to pick up the plot: King John was one of the

three sons of Katherine Hepburn (a.k.a. Elinor of Aquitane) and Henry

II.

Anyone who saw Andrew Weems at STNJ as an arrogant Frenchman in Ionesco’s

"Rhinoceros," or as the opportunistic poet in Moliere’s "The

Learned Ladies" at McCarter, will remember his ability to straddle

comic fakery with reality. In the best sense, Weems does it again

and brilliantly while fulfilling every lily-livered, weak-willed quality

attributed to the ambitious King John.

Also known to McCarter audiences as Caliban in Emily

Mann’s recent staging of "The Tempest," is Ian Kahn, who plays

Philip (the Bastard). His splendidly executed combat with Michael

Rossmy, who strikingly plays the baiting Duke of Austria, includes

martial arts along with the swordplay (courtesy of fight director

Rick Sordelet). It is one of the best stage duels I’ve seen.

Laila Robins plays Constance, who, as the widow of Geoffrey, John’s

older brother, and mother of the ill-fated Arthur, gets to deliver

the play’s (and Shakespeare’s) most exhausting (for everyone) monologue

of wailing and sorrow. To Robins’ credit, while her credible breast-beating

over the loss of her son is sufficiently accomplished, her regal beauty

and clearly intoned fury seems to also make her a prime candidate

for Lady Macbeth, and, I suppose all other Shakespearean queens.

The young Austin Colaluca performs the role of Arthur, Constance’s

son and John’s nephew, with all the polish of an accomplished Shakespearean.

As John’s mother Queen Eleanor, Christine McMurdo-Wallis looked

and sounded as if she had the power to subject all men to her will.

Based on the opening night performances, I suspect that Meredith Napolitano,

who plays the dutiful Blanche and becomes the bride of the Dauphin,

and Haynes Thigpen, as the Dauphin, will reveal more substance as

time goes on.

Edward James Hyland, as the perjuring King of France, and John Ahlin,

as King John’s fair-minded chamberlain consigned but unable to murder

the young and rightful heir, make good impressions. Except for Shakespeare’s

convenient (perhaps politically induced) decision to ignore the signing

of the Magna Carta as a cornerstone of King John’s reign, the play

fulfills itself both as abstracted history and as an absorbing drama.

And this production fulfills its mission as must-see theater.

— Simon Saltzman

King John, Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, Kirby Shakespeare

Theater, Madison, 973-408-5600. $29 to $43. Www.shakespearenj.org.

To August 1


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