Anything but a thoroughly horrendous production of King John would be worth seeing simply by virtue of the fact that the play is unfairly under-produced: its last run on Broadway lasted for under a month back in 1915 and in almost sixty years it has only been staged four times at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
King John is in fact a very interesting and odd little history. At its center is the battle for the British crown, waged by the eponymous brother of Richard the Lionhearted—who is clearly unfit for the job—and his nephew Arthur, who doesn’t seem particularly interested in taking it from him. Both are controlled by domineering, proto-Lady Macbeth mothers, whose deaths leave the pair lost and without conviction.
Fortunately, Ross Williams’ inaugural production for the New York Shakespeare Exchange is much more than a notch in the belt of Shakespearean completists. The director seems to understand the overwhelming arbitrariness of the play’s action (allegiances are formed only to fall apart moments later, battles are won by happenstance instead of military excellence) and his actors speak as if they somehow understand the words coming out of their mouths—a point that, given actors’ propensity for hollow recitation of Shakespearean texts, does not go unnoticed in any production of Shakespeare. (Think Jack Lemmon’s teleprompter performance in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet.)
Williams opens on a chic Manhattan apartment, with John’s entourage boozing, bickering and watching TMZ. This is about right. John is an accidental king and one who clearly doesn’t understand consequences the way a man in his position should—when a representative of the pope, Pandolf, asks for the appointment of a particular bishop, this newly-minted monarch blows him off with unforgivable arrogance: “What earthly name to interrogatories / Can task the free breath of a sacred king?” The dismissal leads to a bloody war with France, staged wonderfully by fight choreographer Alicia Rodis. Battle scenes onstage tend to be terribly awkward, and yet here there is the perfect mix of bratty hair pulling and striking violence that underlines both the silliness of these wars and their very real repercussions. A line spoken by one of John’s knights, “Mad world, mad kings, mad composition!” resonates throughout the entire play.
The acting, on the whole, is a pleasant surprise. Vince Gatton, as John, struts around with appropriate swagger and it is a great deal of fun to watch him sweat once he is forced to take control of his life and his country. Chris Bresky, too, does a fine job as John’s bastard knight, and is careful not to wear out his impish, hyena-like performance in the first half by transitioning to a more sober and mature warrior in the second. But the standout is undoubtedly JC Vasquez’s Arthur. With his saucer eyes and timid cadence, he brings an unexpected tenderness to his role. Like a poor child who got stuck with the neurotic supermom buying Mandarin flashcards along with diapers, Vasquez seems at pains to utter each of his lines. There is a pleading tone to them that is absolutely heartbreaking, and he emerges as the one character that has any idea how damn crazy everybody else is.
Admittedly, the play does peter out by the end, and Williams’ actors each seem to plow through their concluding monologues so we can reach John’s death and all go home. But if this is a slightly rusty new company—at one point we lost power and the stage manager snapped, “Actors, hold; audience, hold,” with the kind of reflexiveness that suggests this wasn’t the first time—it is one worth keeping an eye on. King John appears to be the New York Shakespeare Exchange’s only production of the season, but I look forward to seeing where their creative enthusiasm goes in the future. This is what Off-Off-Broadway should be.