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Reviewed by:
  • King Johnby the Folger Theatre
  • Noel Sloboda
King JohnPresented by the Folger Theatre at the Elizabethan Theatre, Washington, DC. 10 23- 12 2, 2018. Directed by Aaron Posner. Costume design by Sarah Cubbage. Lighting design by Max Doolittle. Scenic design by Andrew Cohen. Original Music and Sound Design by Lindsay Jones. With Akeem Davis (Louis the Dauphin), Brian Dykstra (John, King of England), Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (Austria/Salisbury), Kate Goehring (Queen Eleanor/Lady Faulconbridge/Bigot), Megan Graves (Arthur/Prince Henry), Kate Eastwood Norris (Philip Faulconbridge), Howard W. Overshown (Philip, King of France/Melun/Peter of Pomfret), Holly Twyford (Constance/Pembroke), Elan Zafir (Hubert), and others.

Director Aaron Posner presumed that many attending The Life and Death of King Johnwould be unfamiliar with this history play, which he dubbed in the program "clearly not one of Shakespeare's most famous or popular plays." Thus the event began with the entire cast presenting itself to the house, in costume, as each of the actors used colloquial language to briefly explain his or her character's part in the complex and violent history of the Plantagenets. The titular ruler's first words exposed his feelings of inadequacy in contemporary terms: "Not, you know, the easiest family to grow up in!" Sarah Cubbage's costumes also positioned the world of the play as close to our own: the formalwear sported by the performers came not from the Middle Ages but from the late-nineteenth or early-twentieth century.

After these opening gestures to facilitate audience access, Posner relied not on interpolated exposition but on his talented cast and innovative production team to make the drama come alive. The results were consistently compelling. Andrew Cohen's scenic design was spare but all the more powerful for it. The walls upstage were stripped, looking much as they must between shows at the Elizabethan Theatre, alluding [End Page 447]to the transition of power as John took the crown fast on the heels of his brother Richard's death. At the center of the stage sat an oversized throne on a platform, with nothing else nearby. The monarchy in this way took on magnified importance. As a reminder that the title of king is greater than any one man, a crown of nearly four-foot diameter hung above the throne. Light shown down through the crown, a nod to the traditional divine sanction of the ruler. However, the crown was conspicuously askew, and the lines suspending it were almost indiscernible. From the stalls, it looked as if this oversized piece of headgear might at any moment fall and crush those below, including the king, foreshadowing the tumultuous years of John's tenure.

Drawing attention early on to the monarch's lack of surefootedness, Brian Dykstra repeatedly struggled to navigate the boards. Whenever attempting to rise from his seat or to move past it, he stumbled on the raised edges of the dais. His awkwardness elicited looks of concern from his supporters and expressions of irritation from his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Kate Goehring). The constant bungling pointed to his unsuitability to lead, while perhaps suggesting a personal imbalance within him. The fact that the suit John wore was both rumpled and ill-fitting further undermined him as a would-be commander.

Nevertheless, Dykstra put visible effort into conveying a regal demeanor, at least during the first half of the production. Challenged by the rulers of France and Austria, he stood nose-to-nose with both. He puffed himself up to fill his loose garments as well as his great seat, thereby sharpening the contrast between him and the primary challenger to his title, his nephew Arthur. As the twelve-year-old backed by the French and Austrians for rule of England, Megan Graves was swallowed up by the throne when placed there by Constance (Holly Twyford). Later, though, as the English nobles turned against John, and as relations grew worse with the Church, he too began to fade into the furniture. He slouched and pulled his feet up on the chair, clearly overcome by burdens that attended his high station. Then, after being forced to reconcile with the Church, he removed his crown...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-1427
Print ISSN
0748-2558
Pages
pp. 447-450
Launched on MUSE
2020-07-07
Open Access
No
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