King John – the Phony King of England
A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE
Shakespeare’s King John hasn’t been performed in Baltimore for 237 years. After viewing it, I can sort of see why. It’s not a great play, not even Shakespeare was Shakespeare 100% of the time. It’s not bad, per say, but it’s sort of…floppy. Admittedly, I would rather put acid in my eye than watch most of the histories, but John doesn’t even have a smashingly great villain like Richard III or the oration of Caeser, or the tragic arc of the cautionary Richard II, or the coming-of-age of Henry IV (Part I). It’s English propaganda, sure, but not as pointed as Henry, so not as gleeful. No, what we get with John is a whole lot bitching and squabbling about crowns I (and, hilariously, the citizens in the play) don’t give a whole lot of shit about. Does Baltimore really need King John? Probably not. Are there things to love about this production? Fuck, yeah.
I’m going to need to start with Anne Hammontree’s Constance, because I saw this show two fucking weeks ago and I haven’t stopped thinking about how fucking brilliant her performance is. The play centers around the legitimacy of John (Dean Carlson) as the heir to the English crown, and Constance is the mother of Arthur (Jess Behar), John’s nephew, and the main contestant in terms of the throne. Hammontree bursts onto the stage and rips into her lines like a carrion bird. She’s in the weeds of the witch, seemingly crumpled over physically at times from the black hole of hate and greed, ambition, and especially grief, inside of her. Hammontree makes it clear that if Constance was a man, she’d take up swords and be hailed a tragic hero, but because she is a woman, she is barely tolerated. She’s got a huge ego, a sharp tongue, and an eagle eye for bullshit. One of my favorite sequences in the show is a barbed toe-to-toe between Hammontree and the excellent Jean Miller (Eleanor, John’s mother). I’d gladly watch an entire show about these two women, if director Tom Delise had leaned into this, it could have been pretty spectacular. But he doesn’t.
Carlson takes John to a warmer, more sympathetic place than I anticipated, and I don’t think the show is better for it. Understand that this is a choice, and he pulls it off well, but it is the weakness and pettiness in John that I want most to see. Without this emphatically underlined, the play loses some of its potency. Luckily, Delise is too much of a purist to misunderstand this key component of the show’s vitality. There’s a lot of desperation in John’s dealings with the French king (Zach Brewster-Geisz), underscored by an uncomfortably long moment of the two locking arms as Philip nervously struggles with his religious conscience and John pleads for alliance. Chris Cotterman turns in a respectable Philip the Bastard, a shifty, rather peripheral noble whose parentage is of a question. Cotterman is sardonic and lethal by turns, I only wished he’d had amped up the Bastard’s boorish manners, because it’s a lot of the fun.
Grayson Owen is as controlled as I’ve ever seen him as the French Dauphin. Owen is cold and calculating, and, as ambition takes hold of the character, finds desire, as well, though more for the tantalizing promise of absurd power than for his royal bride, poor Blanche (Jess Garrett). Sian Edwards is an unexpected highlight as snotty Pandulph, an emissary of the Pope. Pandulph seems to speak for a hundred years, which could obviously be dry af, but the way Edwards carries herself is great, and rather than drone, the text actually sings. Flynn Harne has a rather small part as Hubert, but he makes a lot out of it, and one of the funniest parts of the play is his portrayal of a frustrated citizen at the gates, one who doesn’t really care who the fucking king is, as long as there is one. Delise runs some dizzying track casting, which makes the story harder to follow than it already is, but the actors have conviction, and bring a sort of soap opera passion to the proceedings that makes them seem exciting, which is appreciated.
As usual, technical elements are minimal at BSF. Costumes by Kendra Shapanus are disappointingly uneven, with distracting hems and a plastic mask sewed to a shoulder that almost took me out of the show. I did, however, enjoy the fur mantle on the French king, it was pretty decadent.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Approaching King John less as a historical curiosity (it’s not exactly a diamond in the rough) and more as an exercise in watching accomplished Baltimore actors create studied characters really heightens the experience. Ann Hammontree steals the show as the force that is Constance, and the rest of the cast more than keeps up. If you’re in the mood, you’ll like it.