As the first play in its “seldom seen Shakespeare” season, the Long Beach Shakespeare Company’s (LBSC) King John, at the Richard Goad Theatre through March 17, offers a fresh take. Director Brandon Cutts, protégé of recently deceased artistic director Helen Borgers, invites audience participation and brings out subtexts within the history play that make it all the more interesting for our times.
The story centers on King John of England (Andrew Morra) as he vies against King Philip of France (Kevin McGrath) for power. Philip wants England’s throne ceded to John’s young and weak nephew Arthur (Brayson Williams), which incites John to prepare for war.
Meanwhile, the Bastard (Jesse Seann Atkinson), illegitimate son of Richard the Lionheart, finds favor with John’s influential mother, Queen Elinor (Sarah Hoeven), and is elevated to knighthood, joining the English army against France. As an outsider-made-insider, the Bastard sometimes reflects to the audience about the vagaries of power as stances are negotiated and changed.
An Austrian duke (Brendan Bartunek), a cardinal (Rachel Speth) and even a scary, black-feather-clad “prophet” (Tiffany Marler) complicate the political scheming. Color-coded costuming helps keep straight who is who, as do flags flipped by a stagehand depending on which parties are on stage.
As England and France meet in the town of Angiers, the audience is invited to wave a red (England) or blue (France) flag and either cheer or boo and hiss as each side throws down. Which will you root for?
Fortunately, a clever citizen of Angiers (Marler) manages to temporarily sidestep war by suggesting a royal marriage between Louis (Eric Flores), the dauphin of France, and John’s niece, Blanch of Spain (Megan Greenspan). (The two are quite romantic in this production, kissing no less than three times.)
Such twists and turns of allegiance permeate the play, and so much depends on personal persuasion, such as King John underhandedly convincing the loyal Hubert (David-Preston Dent) to secretly kill Arthur. But Hubert, ready to poke his victim’s eyes out with a hot iron stake, is then moved by Arthur’s pleas to spare his life. As directed by Cutts, both conversations with Hubert are very intimate, each scene made fervid by the physical closeness of the characters.
Battle scenes with swords are also exciting and somewhat gruesome, including a severed head, and everyone seems to have sustained an arm injury after the war, judging by all the bloodied elbow bandages.
Acting all around is very effective, especially by LBSC regulars Hoeven as the queen, Atkinson as the Bastard and Randi Tahara as Arthur’s mother Constance, who carries commendably a poignant extended scene bemoaning the loss of her son after his capture by the English.
Marler stands out in her more minor but memorable roles, especially as the citizen of Angiers, delivering her Shakespearian lines as if she were on a modern urban street. As the dauphin Louis, Flores’s passion is palpable, Dent simmers understatedly as Hubert and Williams effectively conveys Arthur’s fragile vulnerability as basically a political pawn.
This relatively fast-paced (and surprisingly understandable, given its level of intrigue) performance of King John unflinchingly reveals the selfishness underlying political power and legitimacy. And just as the remaining “princes” of England arise and stand tall at the end of the play, so too does this production mark Cutts’s confident solo directorial debut, signaling a brave new order.
King John continues at the Richard Goad Theatre, 4250 Atlantic Ave., through March 17, with shows Fridays at 8pm (except March 2), Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $22.50 ($12.50 for students). For tickets and information, call (562) 997-1494 or visit LBShakespeare.org.