I've seen Shakespeare performed at the festival in Ashland, Oregon, in Stratford-on-Avon, England, in London, England, in Salt Lake City, Utah, and on the streets of the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland. True, I'm not a professional theatre critic, but I can tell you that the Utah festival is the ONLY one I've attended where the audience is not considered by the actors and creative staff as a mere group of peasants to be distanced from the artists at all costs. Nope, in Cedar City, at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, the average Joe Schmoe can bump into the creative directors/casting directors and the festival founder nearly every night before a show. The directors are available during the first week, and the actors make themselves accessible later on. There are free literary seminars/discussion groups led by either a theatre journalist or a university professor every morning after a play has been presented. The audience is never treated distantly here.
And so I go nearly every year. And I review the plays on my blog.
But last summer I had two surgeries and didn't make it down to the festival, and in years before that, I reviewed on different blogs. Thus, this is the first time I'm reviewing the plays on this blog.
Brian Vaughn and David Ivers, the creative directors of the festival, have determined that, for their Complete the Canon project, the Bard's history plays will be presented not in the order in which they were written, but in the order in which they fall historically. And thus we begin with King John.
King John is a difficult play and is not often produced. In fact, the Utah festival has only produced King John twice in the festival's entire 52-year history (i. e. 2013 is only the second time).
Corey Jones (shown above in an official festival photo) is a superb King John. The character is indecisive and impetuous, but Jones makes the viewer sympathize with his predicaments, even if it's nearly impossible to feel he's a hero. Jones portrays him in a modern way, as if John is rather like a celebrity seeking power and popularity while pitted against a very fickle public opinion.
John is unsure of himself, and, once his mother, the wise and steady Eleanor of Acquitaine, dies, he is left to make very difficult choices in a no-win situation: his older brother's widow(Constance, widow of Geoffery) is trying to force him to give up his throne so her pre-teen son can have it. If John protects the boy, his throne (and his own son's chance at it) is in danger, but if he has him killed, his popularity is in danger.
And everybody in this play (except for 2 characters) wants power and popularity: the king of France, his son the dauphin, Constance (John's widowed sister-in-law, played by Melinda Pfundstein in the best acting I've ever seen from her; she portrays her as a nasty witch-with-a-capital-B who is willing to use her child to achieve her own ends and then act hysterical when her plans are thwarted), Eleanor, the nobles who keeps switching sides, and manipulating and calculating Catholic cardinal, who starts a war to "punish" John for not paying enough heed to the Pope's political whims.
Only John's son Henry and a completely fictional character with a series of names who is the illegitimate son of Richard I (John's oldest brother, dead before the play starts), who is noble, wise, and honest, are the characters untouched by the reality show mentality of doing anything to stay in the power game.
I found the play moving and powerful, with an uplifting ending. I loved John and the Bastard (played by Steve Wojtas) and Eleanor, while I really felt for the plight of poor Blanche, John's niece, who's bartered into a marriage for peace, only to have her new husband renege on his promise almost immediately.
However, this play is probably not a good choice if you are new to Shakespeare. History plays can often seem dull if you are not familiar with the content or used to Elizabethan language. Yes, there are funny parts. And there's certainly plenty of action and intrigue (with a war, kidnapping, a scene where a good man has been ordered use hot pokers to burn out the eyes of the boy, power struggles, etc.), but it's not as easy to like as Shakespeare's comedies or more familiar tragedies.
My recommendation: if you're a history buff, a drama geek, or well-versed in Shakespeare, this is not a play to miss, as you won't often get chances to see it. It is superbly acted, and the costuming is gorgeous. However, it you're a newbie in any of those areas, this might be a bit difficult.
Five stars to the 2013 King John!
(All photos courtesy of the Utah Shakespeare Festival.)