I had a fun time in Connecticut a couple weeks ago. Right after Merry Wives closed, literally the next day, I packed up my kids and my mom, and we drove to New England. Shakespeare on the Sound had invited me to share my Take 5 workshop with them, and they invited us to see their performance of King John that night, as well. The kids were excited at the opportunity to see a rarity. They learned about the concept of canon completion back when we saw Taming, and are obsessed (for the curious, they are at about 30%: all the comedies that are funny and some that are not, Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest, and now King John).
I’m so grateful that we got to see this production. I’ve only ever seen a one-hour cut of King John, performed by the students at the ASC summer camp. I don’t know why we don’t do it more. It has some great bits in it (incidentally, if you’re looking for an audition monologue that nobody else will be doing, take a look at this script). Maybe that’s why we don’t do it more. It has great bits, but the thru line requires a lot of dramaturgy. SOS’s apprentice company performed a version of King John for kids, in half an hour, before the performance (Arthur “is put in a very bad time-out”). I found it helpful in tracking the performance we saw later.
King John is a bit of an odd choice for SOS, which is one of those Shakespeare-in-the-park, bring-your-picnic companies. That type of company is more likely to reach for either a comedy or one of the more familiar tragedies. King John is not just a history, but possibly the most obscure of the histories. But still, the hillside was full of people, and they clearly followed and enjoyed the story. It made me wonder why we don’t do this play more often. It has some gorgeous scenes, and while the political machinations are a bit obtuse, they’re no worse than that whole Salic law bit in Henry V.
Shakespeare’s histories landed differently for his audience than for a modern American one. Genius dramaturg Chelsea Phillips once told me that, for Shakespeare’s audience, hearing the name of an earl or a duke was not that different to them from hearing the name of a sports team is to us. Even if we aren’t invested in a fandom, we have a vague geographic connection, an idea of their story and their general vibe (like how I was pleased when the Steelers made the Superbowl, despite my total lack of interest in football and the fact that it’s been over 20 years since I last lived in Steelers country). Shakespeare’s audience would have known the famous events of their history and had some sense of the major players. The closest analog for us might be how it feels to watch Hamilton or 1776. Some aspects of the story don’t require explanation, because we’re familiar with at least the broad outlines.
Eve Speer Garcia made a compelling argument (I believe in her Master’s thesis, although it may have been a different project) that Henry VIII is best read as a masque, and that argument transformed how I experienced all of Shakespeare’s history plays. Each famous king had certain episodes that everyone knew about and the plays put those up on the stage. They expected a certain level of background knowledge from their audience. Read in this light, King John makes more sense. Reflecting on the production, a couple weeks after seeing it, what I remember are moments and images—The moment when King Philip (Ian Gould) struggled to decide whether to continue holding hands with King John (Winsome Brown); Hubert (Kenny Toll) wrestling with his conscience over whether to put out young Arthur’s (Luan Taveras) eyes; Constance (Marguerite Stimpson) facing off against the Cardinal (Vernice Miller). That’s how pageants are structured: They give you images and moments, and the arc of the narrative may be present but isn’t the point.
Director Claire Kelly created a cohesive production that built humanity and humor into the story while also supporting the audience’s understanding. Her cut kept the play moving, disposed with extraneous bits, and in some cases, reordered scenes to minimize convolutions. The text work was invisible, and therefore impeccable. Everyone understood how the language worked and how to operationalize it. Kelly used color coding to help the audience track the English vs. the French, something my children noticed and appreciated. The ensemble was strong; every character had clarity and depth, down to the angry citizen (Keara Benton) shouting from the walls (I wish the play had more of this, Benton was delightful). Winsome Brown’s performance as King John was stunning. She stayed grounded in playing the specifics of each moment, which created variety and clarity. She let us see King John’s moments of indecision and discovery, taking us on the journey with her and humanizing a character I only knew from statues and Robin Hood. Another stand-out performance was Cooper Jennings as the Bastard. He deeply understood the Bastard’s role as audience proxy, and Kelly often amplified this by physically placing him near or among the audience, a heckler from the sidelines.
I loved the fights; fight director Rod Kinter created combat that told a clear story and leveraged the performers’ technical skills. Even up close, they looked dangerous to the characters, but safe for the actors—the best kind of stage combat.
I’m glad that I managed to catch this production, and I hope that SOS continues to take on daring projects and stretch its audience. We’ll be back.