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THE LIFE AND DEATH OF KING JOHN has a talented cast, but bites off too much at New Phoenix Theatre

THE BASICS:  THE LIFE AND DEATH OF KING JOHN, adapted from Shakespeare and then directed by Lawrence Gregory Smith runs through March 23, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 at the New Phoenix Theatre, 95 Johnson Park (853-1334). Soda, beer, and wine available. Runtime: 2 hours exactly with one intermission.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  Here is a top-line of some of the plot points taken from and heavily edited by me. I wish I had studied the plot and personnel in detail before watching this convoluted play at the New Phoenix Theatre. Perhaps this will help.

English King John and his mother, Queen Eleanor, reject French King Philip’s claim to the English throne, a claim he makes on behalf of John’s young nephew Prince Arthur and so France threatens war.

Meanwhile, the brothers Philip (older but illegitimate and therefore known as “The Bastard”) and Robert Faulconbridge come to King John to settle their family inheritance dispute. Philip may be illegitimate, but he is the bastard son of John’s late brother, Richard the Lionheart, and so has a good case, but in the end decides to forego his inheritance in favor of the title “Sir Richard,” and the chance for career advancement by joining Queen Eleanor’s army on their way to France. Don’t be fooled. Philip is an operator who makes Paul Manafort look like a cub scout leader.

Queen Eleanor (mother of King John) and Constance (mother of young Arthur) argue about the claims of their respective sons. Meanwhile, in the name of Arthur, French King Philip attacks the English-owned but French city of Angers. King John says (although he says it in iambic pentameter): “Oh yeah? You want the English throne? Well, I want the French throne! So put ‘em up!” Battle #1 ensues and in “Donald Trump” style nobody really wins but both parties claim victory.

Hubert (sort of a Michael Cohen with a conscience) proposes a peace marriage between John’s niece, Blanche, and the French Dauphin, Louis, to unite both countries. Note #1: Dauphin [say “doh-FAN”] is French for “the oldest son of the king of France.” Note #2: in this production, Blanche and the Dauphin are played by the same person wearing a coat of two different colors. John supports the match, gives young Arthur a noble title to try to pacify Arthur’s mother, Constance, but neither Constance nor the bastard Philip (remember him?) are happy with this compromise.

Sub-plot: On the wedding day of Louis the Dauphin and Blanche, the Pope’s ambassador interrupts the party to challenge King John’s refusal to acknowledge the new Archbishop of Canterbury. After criticizing and denying the Pope’s distant power, John is excommunicated. King Philip is originally hesitant to oppose John due to the newly-formed ties between him and John through the marriage of Blanche and the Louis the Dauphin, but the Pope’s man persuades King Philip to oppose John and remove him from office. So, it’s time for Battle #2.

King John captures young Prince Arthur and has his “fixer” Hubert “rendition” the lad to England while Queen Eleanor and the Bastard Philip continue the war with France. King Philip and Louis the Dauphin mourn both the loss of the town of Angers and Prince Arthur’s claim. Constance mourns the disappearance of her son Arthur, blames the Church, and wanders around grief stricken and just a little insane.

The Church persuades Louis to attack England while the country is in turmoil. By this point you in the audience might be thinking “Is this truly Shakespeare? Yes, it’s confusing as hell, with way too many characters, but where’s the cut-throat treachery?” Wait for it: John persuades Hubert of Angers that rendition isn’t enough. Arthur must die as he presents too much of a threat to John’s throne. John orders Hubert to kill the innocent young Arthur. Hubert first threatens to blind the Prince with red-hot irons, and then to take his life, but relents when the boy pleads for mercy. Hubert decides to hide the boy instead, but SPOILER ALERT, don’t get too relieved.

Time passes: A messenger brings news from France: Eleanor and Constance have both died (Constance of madness). And Louis, now the King of France, is threatening to invade England. Hubert tells John that Arthur is dead.  John’s nobles are angry and many of want to resign from the White House and go to join French King Louis in his siege. When John becomes angry at Hubert, he wants to tweet nasty things about him, but will have to wait 800 years for Twitter to be invented. Meanwhile, Arthur now is super dead, having killed himself by jumping from the castle walls. The nobles who find his body blame Hubert and John. Again, 800 years later Robert Mueller and the Senate might investigate, but not here.

As the French forces move towards London, strengthened by the defecting lords, John yields to the Church’s supremacy in return for protection. John, struck with illness, seeks refuge at an abbey. Hubert seeks out the Bastard Philip with news that King John has been poisoned. John’s son Prince Henry, now King, orders the burial of his father while the Bastard Philip (remember him?) proclaims peace throughout England.

Eric Mowery as Lady Faulconbridge with Marie Costa as Constance | Photo courtesy New Phoenix Theatre

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: The play opens with the players supposedly in disarray babbling lines, but since we have no affection for them this early in the show, we were not amused. And then we are treated to a genealogy complete with royal family tree affixed to the stage left wall. It doesn’t help. There’s a reason why Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in his show “Finding Your Roots” holds off on the family tree until the end, after you know all the players. Here it’s way too much information way too soon. And during the play, glancing away from the action on the stage to the graphic on the wall was distracting.

Then the play begins. Without a doubt, the sleazy, sly, supercilious characterization of John by the talented young Connor Caso is one saving grace of the play. Even if you’re hopelessly muddled, at least you can enjoy his arrogant condescension disguised as caring concern. Equally wonderful in her energy and clear diction was Marie Costa who plays two roles – Philip the Bastard and Constance, the mother of young Arthur. And while I can’t explain it, there was also something very attractive about actor Eric Mowery, who plays Hubert the “fixer” (and other roles) in a very relaxed and engaging manner.

Also surprisingly touching, and I mean this in all seriousness, was the puppet figure of said Arthur and, while more hilarious than touching, the puppet soldiers in battle were delightful.

The set by Chris Wilson, assisted by Dan Toner, was interesting, but also confusing, consisting, downstage, of two wooden staircases and a large wooden platform which the cast continuously moved around. Up at Stratford, Ontario, they don’t move the stage elements around that much. It really didn’t help clear up any of the convoluted plot.

In the “Director’s Notes” Lawrence Gregory Smith writes about his inspiration for this small-cast, multiple-roles-per-actor production. There were two visits to his college by the Royal Shakespeare Company which put on TWELFTH NIGHT and then MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, each time with only five players. Now, that’s ambitious, given the plot twists of both of those plays, but since they were the Royal Shakespeare Company, obviously they pulled it off.

Unfortunately, there is an order of magnitude between full time Shakespeare companies and everybody else. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been at Canada’s Stratford Festival and have said “Oh, now I get it. Why did I ever think that this play was difficult?” That won’t happen here.

So, when you go to see “KING JOHN” expect a spirited performance, but, despite the fun of puppets and costumes, not a particularly easy-to-understand performance. Having said that, given the cost of Stratford tickets versus the Thursday night “pay what you can” policy at The New Phoenix, it truly is affordable Shakespeare. So there’s that.

Photo courtesy New Phoenix Theatre | Eric Mowery as Lady Faulconbridge with Marie Costa as Constance

UP NEXT: ANNAPURNA, a play April 26 to Mary 18: “After twenty years apart, Emma tracks Ulysses to a trailer park in the middle of nowhere for a final reckoning. What unfolds is a visceral and profound meditation on love and loss with the simplest of theatrical elements: two people in one room. A breathtaking story about the longevity of love.”

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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