A lesser play of Shakespeare’s, King John requires three things to work: a director alert to subtleties and complexities that need stressing or clarifying; an accomplished cast of (preferably English) actors who can handle convolution and orotundity, and can humanize schematic characters; and an opulent production to do justice to the pageantry and obviate the need for triple-casting performers who have a hard enough time with a single role.
Theatre for a New Audience here lacks all three resources. The director, Karin Coonrod, cannot make salient elusive meanings mired in thick rhetoric, or does not catch them herself. She uses the stage and auditorium effectively and has some good tricks up her sleeve, though Arthur’s slow-motion fall from the battlements falls rather flat. Lacking is incisive lucidity. The actors at her command are mostly second-rate, notably Ned Eisenberg as King John, who – in looks, speech, and gesture – comes across as a lox salesman at Zabar’s. Even the Bastard of Derek Smith, though lively and well-spoken, has no period sense and does not fully project moral growth. Only Nicholas Kepros, as Chatillon and Cardinal Pandolph, and Mark Vietor, as King Philip (but not in his other parts), are credible and commanding.
As for production values, P. K. Wish’s costumes, ludicrously straining to fuse the medieval and the modern, are sheer wishful thinking. Thus, Katie MacNichol, absurdly double-cast as a messenger from the battlefield, is outfitted as an envoy from Banana Republic. I particularly enjoyed the turkey basters dangling from every belt, so that a dueler could not best another, only baste him. Douglas Stein, a specialist in minimal scenery, here goes virtually subliminal, his décor consisting of a platform with a row of windows in its floor, allowing Christopher Akerlind, the lighting designer, some striking light effects from below. Good, too, is the bank of lights facing and sometimes dazzling us, and the not infrequent change of lighting within one scene – stylization both dramatic and poetic – making this pretty much the admirable Akerlind’s show.
I’m afraid Theatre for a New Audience takes its name too literally, serving the needs of only those too inexperienced for comparisons, and, for reviews, depending on the kindness of strangers to serious criticism.