Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Life and Death of King John

Animal Fire Theatre’s annual Shakespeare in the Park

Published in the Weekly Volcano, Aug. 20, 2015
from Left: Allison Zoe Schneider, Dennis Worrell, Kate Ayers (atop the tower), Brian
Jansen, Brian Hatcher. Photo by Kate Arvin.
This summer’s Shakespeare in the Park by Animal Fire Theatre tackles one of the bard’s lesser known plays, King John.
It is a difficult play to follow, primarily perhaps, because it is little known. Since plays such as Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet are so celebrated it is much easier to understand them, but since fewer people know who Philip the Bastard and Lady Blanch and Lady Constance are, King John can be difficult to understand. That’s why a synopsis is printed in the program and why director Scott Douglas encouraged the audience to study the synopsis before the play starts.
Added to that difficulty are the usual distractions of outdoor theater: passing trucks and motorcycles, airplanes overhead, and the night I attended a dog off leash who got excited and barked a couple of times while watching the play, which was distracting but sort of funny, but then tried to join in a sword fight on stage, which was not funny. Please, people, think twice about bringing your dog; and if you do please leash them during the performance.
Yet one other difficulty: one of the actors, Pug Bujeaud, got sick and was replaced at the last minute by Jen Ryles, founder of Olympia Family Theater, who had to be on book but did a commendable job of acting despite being hard to hear. Some of the other actors were also hard to hear, exacerbated because the slope of the ground meant much of the audience was sitting quite a distance from the stage area.
Even with these problems, it is an entertaining play. Typical of Shakespeare, it combines history, tragedy and comedy and features larger-than-life characters. The amount of bloodshed is considerably less than in many of Shakespeare’s tragedies and history plays.
It begins when an ambassador from France (David Shoffner) demands that English King John (Brian Hatcher) renounce his throne in favor of Arthur, whom the French King, Philip (Dennis Worrell) believes to be the rightful heir to the throne. War, intrigue, religious disputes and a marriage between Lewis (Maddox Pratt), the son of King Philip, and King John’s niece, Blanche (J Benway) ensue — all of which leads eventually to the poisoning of King John.
Hatcher is a strong presence as King John, and Worrell is strong and fierce as King Philip. The clashes between these two are like a standoff between two immovable objects, as are the hot war of words between Elinor of Aquitaine (Ryle) and Lady Constance (Christine Goode), mother of Arthur, who is fearless and strong and backs down from no one.
One of the most engaging characters is Philip (Brian Wayne Jansen), the bastard son of Richard the Lionhearted, not to be confused with Philip the king of France. I had a hard time keeping track of how Philip the Bastard fit in with the various warring factions. He seemed at times to be a go-between or reconciler and at other times a warrior for King John, but mostly he seemed to be looking out for his own self-interests. Though it was difficult to understand his part in the story, Jansen’s acting was great to watch. So was Kate Ayers'. She provided a lot of comedy in the roles of Lord Pembroke and First Citizen, Warden of Angiers, Brittany.
There are a lot of gender busting roles in this production, including Allison Zoe Schneider, who was a good young Arthur and doubled as Prince Henry and as a messenger, and Maddox Pratt, who was outstanding as King Philip’s son, Lewis.
By-the-way, Richard the Lion Hearted is the same Richard who was prominent in the Robin Hood legends, but Arthur is not the Arthur from Camelot. Shakespeare was not concerned with historical accuracy.
King John, 6: 30 p.m., Thursdays through Sundays through Aug. 23, Priest Point Park, Olympia (park in the lot by the playground on the west side of the park and walk into the meadow behind the bathrooms). Free, donations accepted.

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