King John

Chicago Shakespeare Theater

King John recalls some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Like Richard III, it revolves around an ambitious royal whose hold on the English throne is threatened by a young relative with a better claim. Like King Lear, it features a cunning bastard son with ambitions. Like Henry V, it involves a military adventure on French soil. Like Macbeth, it portrays one woman with balls of steel, and–like Macbeth and Hamlet both–another woman gone mad. There’s even a trope out of The Winter’s Tale, where someone thought to have been killed turns out to have been hiding all along.

But having so much in common with so many great plays doesn’t make King John great. In fact it makes this relatively early historical drama something of a mess. A kind of Shakespearean utility drawer, the script offers up loads of interesting little pieces of things that we know fit beautifully somewhere. Just not here.

It’s too bad, because Shakespeare’s title character is a rich subject for exploration. King John was the nefarious, inept youngest son of King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitane (known most vividly to us as Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn in the film version of The Lion in Winter). His brothers included Richard the Lion-Hearted, against whom he intrigued for years with all the acumen and success that Wile E. Coyote brings to his intrigues against Road Runner. John finally assumed the crown after Richard’s death in 1199–despite the fact that his prepubescent nephew, Arthur, had first dibs–and held on to it for 17 years, during which he accomplished a great deal of good almost entirely by accident. The signal example of John’s unintentional statesmanship–or failed villainy–was of course the Magna Carta, which came into being as a reaction against his despotism.

Interestingly, the Magna Carta isn’t even mentioned in King John. Shakespeare focuses instead on the violent melodrama of succession. The play opens with Philip, King of France, giving John an ultimatum on little Arthur’s behalf; all the rest is a seesawing, often bloody struggle for advantage that sprawls out along both sides of the English Channel and eventually sucks in the Holy See.

Throughout, Shakespeare drops hints of what posterity has come to consider his great themes. John’s remorse over his crimes, for instance, offers a foretaste of the profound meditations on guilt that appear later, in Macbeth and other plays. The issue of competence versus lineage (think Hamlet and Lear, among others) is embodied here in Philip Faulconbridge, the tough, smart illegitimate son of Richard the Lion-Hearted. Faulconbridge also speaks some bitter words about privilege and war that anticipate Henry V. But in the end, this bastard is an only half-realized character, and his words offer just the palest approximation of the lacerating cynicism Shakespeare would ultimately manifest. Likewise John. Likewise King John. The entire work seems flat-footed, vague, complete yet unfinished. It’s as if Shakespeare had shot an entire film with the camera in the wrong spot.

Barbara Gaines does her awesome, overbearing, slightly monstrous best to overcome this innate weakness, attempting to bury it in a glitzy modern-dress production that includes a working tank and scenic designer Alexander Dodge’s bravura–and possibly life-size–depiction of a fallen electric power line. Unfortunately, her concept only adds mystification to inadequacy. Why the update? As I watched the diplomats in suits, the soldiers toting automatic weapons, the protesters with cans of spray paint, I mentally rifled through every current events parallel I could think of–Iraq? Bin Laden? The Bush I-to-Dubya succession?–and couldn’t find one that seemed genuinely applicable. In a program essay Shakespeare scholar David Bevington hits on something powerful when he contrasts Arthur’s abstract right to the crown with the real human trauma of a war waged to protect that right. But if that’s what Gaines wants to investigate, she doesn’t need the graffiti or the flak jackets. My best guess, finally, was that she did the update simply in order to provide the right context for an LED display that hangs over the stage and flashes “news” items, Times Square-style, to keep the audience hip to the plot as it unfolds. The effect is to turn the show into an Elizabethan PowerPoint presentation.

Gaines’s attempt to generate pop resonances actually blows up in her face at one point, when John Reeger as a spectral papal legate shows a more than spiritual interest in Zachary Gray’s Arthur. His behavior toward the boy unambiguously conjures the Catholic church’s current sex abuse scandals. Trouble is, Reeger’s traditional clerical garb and Elizabethan diction take him out of the present as much as Gaines’s digital readouts and plastic chairs attempt to bring him into it. The no-doubt-unintended result is a paradoxical timelessness–and the strong, distasteful implication that sexual abuse is an ancient, perhaps even inherent preoccupation of the Roman Catholic priesthood.

Much more effective than her 21st-century bells and whistles and sirens is Gaines’s energetic pursuit of Shakespeare’s wit. A scene in which two armies stop fighting each other long enough to team up against a defenseless town makes for great satire, and Gaines exploits it well. She also finds good uses for Timothy Edward Kane, who, with his Colin Farrell-ish looks, neon energy, and excellent timing, makes a sharp, hilarious bastard.

Greg Vinkler is more quietly, pathetically funny as John. His Nixonian bearing and weirdly childlike enthusiasm for power render him oddly endearing–though at the very end they also deprive him of a necessary gravitas. At one point an unaccustomed outburst of joy incites Vinkler to a moment of profound clowning worthy of Dario Fo.

Without exception the women of the cast are fascinating. Especially Linda Kimbrough as Eleanor of Aquitane and Lisa Dodson as Arthur’s mother, Constance–the rock of indomitability and the hard place of grief respectively. At a certain level the play is all about these women–as Macbeth at a certain level is about Lady Macbeth, Hamlet is about Gertrude and Ophelia, and Lear is about the queen who neither appears nor is mentioned.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.