Looking back on the last few months, each of us has our “Shoulda seen it/Shoulda been there” moments, events that we would have given anything to see live.
So at the moment, imagine if you will that this critic is kicking himself more sorely up the backside than Bessus, the hapless butt of everyone’s jokes in the Jacobean comedy classic A King and No King. We missed a great one.
In A King and No King—first staged by Shakespeare’s company in the Bard’s waning years—Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher teamed up to create a whirlwind of a comedy, one that takes you on such highs and lows, with tragedy and farce competing cheek by jowl for your eye and ear, it dizzies the mind. It’s got what a distracted soul needs these days—arrogant kings, duplicitous queens, spiced up considerably by a hint of incest (this is the early 1600s after all—Duchess of Malfi, anyone?) and one or two truly ridiculous clowns thrown into the mix. This boat rocks and plunges, but makes it to port in one piece, banners flying.
Benjamin Reed scales the heights and plunges the depths of Arbaces, the King of Iberia—modern-day Georgia, more or less—whose triumph in battle has brought him an Armenian King, Tigranes, as prisoner (played here with ample helpings of gravity and humor by Ronald Román-Meléndez). Reed’s braggadocio is on full display as the play opens, a swagger in victory so extreme that you know he’s about to meet some downfall or other.
This being a play, Arbaces demands that as penance, his prisoner Tigranes marry his sister, Panthea, whom he hasn’t seen in years, and whom he believes would make a good political match. Tigranes, already engaged to Spaconia (the charming, witty Sylvie Davidson), plots to send his fiancée to Arbace’s court as a combination spy and lady-in-waiting for Panthea.
So far, so good—but of course things fall apart rapidly; Arbaces returns home in triumph only to discover that Panthea, the princess whom he believes to be his sister, is absolutely bewitching. Tigranes, with his Spaconia looking on, is of much the same opinion about the princess himself. One man’s stricken with incestuous thoughts, the other seriously tempted to ditch his intended.
Arbaces is, naturally, horrified by his desires—and it doesn’t help that in a later scene, Panthea (the wonderful Zoe Speas) confesses that actually, she’s hot for her brother in return. The fact that this taboo is hardly taboo at all, because they’re not really related, doesn’t become clear until the very end—of course. Hence the 2½ hours’ worth of intrigue and mayhem.
Balancing the serious plot lines here of potential incest, broken engagements, and the resulting feuds is a parallel cast of fools, led by the howlingly ridiculous Chris Johnston as Bessus. As cowardly as he is luckless, Bessus blusters to no effect, stripped of his (never used) battle sword, offending hundreds—judging from the pile of challenges to duels he’s accumulated—and meriting multiple smacks and kicks, which Johnston bears to hilarious effect. John Harrell is positively batty as Lygones, short-tempered father of Spaconia, who holds fast to his mistakes in judgment so firmly you can see his brain splitting in two.
David Anthony Lewis, decked out in hilariously outlandish garb (shades of Dracula, perhaps?), creates his share of trouble as Gobrias, Lord-Protector of Iberia and a man armed with the show’s biggest secret—which, did I mention, can’t be revealed until the very end? (So I did…) Brandon Carter as Bacurious, Bessus’ nemesis, is everything our braggart is not, brave, forthright, and resourceful. And KP Powell provides a much-needed element of gravitas as Mardonius, Arbaces’ trusted officer, whose refusal to aid his king in furthering his incestuous schemes is the linchpin of the action.
The musical pre-show and intermission offerings here are heartfelt and topical, with Román-Meléndez’s passionate rendition of Calle 13’s “La Bala” (the bullet), a plea for nonviolence, and Carter’s turn with Death’s “Politicians in My Eyes” taking direct aim at the problems facing us. There is time for a little nostalgic fun, however, and Powell channels Marvin Gaye brilliantly in his rendition of “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” busting a few moves in the bargain.
Given that you, dear reader, can no longer enjoy this show, I can only confirm that this was a goodly one with a fantastic cast that left no tragic stone unturned, and no comic turn un-stoned. We can only hope that once the virus has taken its course, the Actor’s Renaissance Season will return to Staunton, Virginia’s Blackfriars stage where it belongs, and rouse our now-dampened, homebody spirits.
Running Time: 2½ hours, including one intermission.
A King and No King,originally filmed in Staunton Virginia, was part of American Shakespeare Center’s Actor’s Renaissance Season, which was recently available (thanks to an arrangement with Actor’s Equity) on Blkfrs TV (Blackfriars TV) on Vimeo, in repertory with Much Ado About Nothing, Henry IV Part I, and Henry IV Part II.
The Grapes of Wrath, Midsummer 90, and Imogen (aka Cymbeline) from ASC’s National Tour season are currently streaming on BlkFrsTV. For information and tickets visit: http://www.americanshakespearecenter.com/