Shakespeare’s King John is not frequently produced. It has many unfamiliar historical characters (John reigned during the early 13th century; history remembers him because he was forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1215). He was a ruthless schemer, more concerned with pomp and personal preservation than ruling justly, and Shakespeare’s play is shot through with murky themes of devious politics and shifting loyalties between England, France and the Catholic Church.
Nonetheless, the play — which Cincinnati Shakespeare Company has finally produced during its 17th season — is an interesting if not wholly satisfying piece of theater. Billy Chace plays the self-indulgent, petulant king, and Sherman Fracher is his domineering, scheming mother Queen Eleanor. Corinne Mohlenhoff is excellent as the beleaguered widow of John’s older brother and mother of Arthur, the pitiful, ill-fated nephew John bypassed to become king. The juicy role of Philip the Bastard, John’s illegitimate cousin who becomes his fiercest retainer, goes to Christopher Guthrie, who delivers with relish several monologues full of gloriously cynical language.
The production is colorfully costumed in authentic period dress (designed by Heidi Jo Schiemer), and the moody scenic design and lighting (Travis McElroy, Sara Watson) benefit from a steady mist that enhances the confusion of furious battles.
Director Brian Phillips employs the entire theater to re-create violent, chaotic warfare — up and down the aisles as well as a tumultuous climactic battle scene in slow motion and low light — and fight director Drew Fracher has trained the actors for combat with a variety of weapons. Guthrie has a nice way with a battle axe.
Nonetheless, audiences are likely to be bewildered by the complicated plot and some odd choices regarding tone. John could rival Richard III for bad behavior, but Chace plays him with as much comedy as villainy. Is King John supposed to evoke laughter? I think not.
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