For the second year running, the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival is staging one of Shakespeare’s plays — King John — in the style of an actual 16th-century Shakespearean theatrical production. The actors arrive, lines memorized, for only four days of rehearsal, carrying out directorial duties themselves and scrounging up their own costumes. The result is a production stripped down to its basic elements and all the more riveting for it.
In keeping with the constraints of Elizabethan theatrical practices, the players utilize a pre-existing set design — in this case, Bob Phillips’s set from the PSF’s production of The Tempest. The initial disorientation of King John apparently taking place in the Australian Outback quickly passes, however, as the cast primarily ignores the backdrop in favor of making use of the entirety of the thrust stage, and occasionally portions of the house as well. (The repurposed set only causes actual difficulties once, when Arthur’s tragic fall over the castle walls during an escape attempt could have easily been prevented if he had used the ladder prominently leading to his platform.) The costuming is done in a likewise thrifty spirit, based on whatever the actors could come up with themselves. Not surprisingly, the result is a modern-dress production (though how modern is somewhat vague — Blanche’s dress, Austria’s fedora, and Pembroke and Salisbury’s all-purpose service coats seem an era or two behind everyone else’s clothing). However, they are not without a few genius sartorial touches: Austria’s lion-fur-lined vest and Cardinal Pandulph’s embroidered shoes are two outrageous, but perfectly in-character, examples.
The cast’s performances, already enjoyable on their own, are even more remarkable for their genesis: the actors perform with the professionalism and confidence of the full six-week rehearsal schedule normally allotted for the PSF’s other productions. Of particular note is Susan Riley Stevens as Constance, the mother of Arthur — John’s nephew and rival to the throne — and the instigator of the play’s conflict. Stevens handles the role, which consists almost entirely of impassioned speeches, with aplomb; she never lets Constance’s histrionics devolve into the one-note, and deftly navigates among rage, desperation, and grief. Stevens brings out the performative aspect of Constance’s emotional outbursts while also introducing a measure of ambiguity as to how calculating her performance actually is — is it the natural reaction of a high-strung and possibly unstable woman under a great deal of pressure? Or is it deliberately weaponized as her primary means of furthering her agenda for her son?
Similarly impressive is Eric Hissom as King Philip of France, who makes his antagonist surprisingly likable: kind towards Constance when she is no longer a political asset, and genuinely conflicted when he is called on by the Pope’s legate to betray the newly-established peace between France and England. The latter in particular allows Hissom some subtle moments, as he nervously fingers his cross as John is excommunicated and conveys a sense of regret as their pact is broken. Richard B. Watson capitalizes on his relatively minor but pivotal role as Cardinal Pandulph, combining gravity and dignity with a slightly sinister cunning. Greg Wood as King John is likewise grave and dignified — perhaps too much so. His breakdown upon hearing of his mother’s death and France’s invasion feels too abrupt and at odds with the seemingly uncomplicated confidence with which Wood has previously imbued him. Another slightly discordant note is Sally Mercer as Queen Eleanor, who delivers a perfectly adequate portrayal of an affectionate matriarch and skilled stateswoman. However, she does come off as curiously bland for someone who is not only the reflection of an infamous historical figure, but who also asks for her new-found grandson’s allegiance by informing him “I am a soldier and bound for France” and whose loss is so devastating the eponymous character becomes completely unmoored.
If the hastily coordinated but smoothly executed acting is the most obviously impressive result of the restrictions placed on the cast, in hindsight, their ability to assume the duties of a director and muster a production comparable to many that did have the benefit of an individual in that role is just as extraordinary. Though the blocking occasionally falls prey to the difficulties of not obstructing the view of the audience members on either side of the thrust stage, it is generally both dynamic and clever, reflecting the play’s constant plot twists and shifting factions. Scenes potentially too difficult to arrange in four days are adeptly elided: the fighting all occurs off-stage, represented by realistic sound effects and the drums of war (which also satisfyingly begin and end the play); Arthur’s plummet to his doom is replaced by a fade to black, allowing the audience to discover his fate at the same time as the characters. The characters are condensed for double-casting and the script is edited by Erin Hurley and Patrick Mulcahy, and for the most part these changes work well. They add to Shakespeare’s original dramatis personae to great effect, with an ominous monk who follows John around in the last acts of the play, foreshadowing his demise. On another occasion, they have the heralds of England and France deliver their proclamations of victory simultaneously, shouting over each other to convince the citizens of Angiers that their respective candidate is the true King of England. However, much of the Bastard’s comic material is cut, and Ian Bedford tends to deliver the rest more as a reflection of his character’s belligerence than his quick humor. Bedford’s performance is quite good, but without the Bastard’s sharp wit to provide contrast to the reversals of John’s reign, the production lacks balance.
Overall, though, the streamlined story and “extreme Shakespeare” style serve to showcase the play’s author and its actors, proving that the most basic productions can be amazing when they rely on the cast’s hard work and ingenuity, and an awesome script.