King John, one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known history plays, is filled with intrigue, betrayal, and a pair of kings who are constantly threatening to go to war. In other words, it’s perfect for this political season. And Director Dan Kern’s production for Revolution Shakespeare, staged outdoors at Hawthorne Park, gets down and dirty with the play’s often brutal characters.
John, who ruled England circa 1200 A.D., landed on the throne by getting in the way of a young nephew. In Shakespeare’s telling, John’s effort to maintain power leads him into conflict with his family, members of the royal court, the Pope, and eventually the King of France.
Revolution Shakespeare’s production takes place in a derelict, post-apocalyptic age where everything seems like it’s been scrounged; even the crown atop the king’s head looks like it’s been rescued from a salvage yard. Natalia de la Torre’s costumes clad the cast in fatigues, boots, ripped jeans and makeshift wraps. The actors’ faces are covered with blurred mascara and black streaks, making them look like refugees from a lost tribe.
King John can be difficult to follow at times, especially when a gaggle of new characters is introduced at the start of act two with little explanation. But a little concentration is rewarding. And Kern’s direction always keeps the characters’ shifting loyalties clear.
Everyone seems constantly on the edge of violence in King John; that’s partly because Shakespeare’s words crackle with the threat of violence. (The King declares war on France by bellowing that he is possessed by “A rage… that nothing can allay, nothing but blood.”) Kern’s production conveys that ferocious mood effectively.
And in a production that emphasizes combat (both political and physical), the best performances are the most forceful ones. They include Kevin Bergen as King John, commanding through power and fear; Jared Michael Delaney as the King of France, fighting fire with fire; Adrienne Hertler, spitting out her words spitefully as Lady Constance; and clarion-voiced Matt Lorenz as Hubert, a henchman troubled by the King’s reckless nature.
But it’s Carlo Campbell as the warrior Philip – a.k.a. Philip the Bastard – who runs away with the show. With a sly, knowing smile and a dynamic attitude, Campbell is a force of nature who you’d want to have in your army.
Merci Lyons-Cox shines in a number of small roles. She also sings lead in the band that plays before and throughout the show; they’re setup on a small permanent stage in the corner of Hawthorne Park (most of the play’s action is performed on the ground in front of the stage). The band, made up entirely of cast members, sounds terrific, playing a moody alt-rock repertoire heavy on synthesizer and drums. (You’ll hear some familiar tunes by Massive Attack and David Bowie, but it’s mostly originals by Christopher Colucci). Lyons-Cox also offers terse (but unnecessary) plot commentary between scenes.
Lauren Tracy’s fight direction adds excitement to the battles. And Andrew Cowles’ low-level lighting gives those battles an enigmatic texture. You’ll feel like you’re in the jungle with these warriors – and in this production of King John, that’s a very good place to be.
Running Time: Two hours, with no intermission.
King John plays through October 1, 2016 at The 2016 Philadelphia Fringe Festival and is presented by Revolution Shakespeare, performing at Hawthorne Park – 12th and Catherine Street, in Philadelphia, PA. Admission is free.