Cedar City • In "King John," which just opened at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, the playwright paints a portrait of a kingdom and a family in turmoil.
John's brother, Richard the Lion Hearted, died without an heir, and John, propelled by his ambitious mother, Eleanor, seized the throne.
But his nephew, the young Arthur, has perhaps a more legitimate claim and is supported by the French, pushing the two countries to the point of war.
Then, just as England and France work out a compromise, the pope tries to exert his influence, and everything falls apart again.
Late in the play Philip the Bastard describes the atmosphere in the country to the king: "I find the people strangely fantasied,/ Possessed with rumors, full of idle dreams,/ Not knowing what they fear, but full of fear."
"King John," the first play in Shakespeare's English history cycle, is the playwright's most comprehensive picture of political duplicity and the chaos it causes. People and countries continually shift in their determination to come out on top, and no one can be trusted. Church and state unscrupulously jockey for position and power in this moral wasteland.
Women are especially vulnerable in this dog-eat-dog world, and this play possesses some wonderfully articulate female characters. Young princess Blanche voices their plight when she says, "Whoever wins, on that side shall I lose." Eleanor has power through her son John, but Arthur's mother, the widowed Constance, has no one to protect her. The two mothers are pitted against each other, and when John kidnaps Arthur, Constance reacts with some of the play's most eloquent, moving speeches. Melinda Pfundstein captures Constance's anguish in one of this production's most powerful performances.
But she is not alone. "King John" has a well-matched cast that keeps the tension crackling. As the beleaguered king, Corey Jones is mercurial and manipulative as he desperately tries to hold onto his throne. Director Robynn Rodriguez continually seats him on that throne, and his changing body language instantly communicates his situation: Sometimes he appears strong; other times he looks as if he is hiding.
Jeanne Paulsen's unrelenting tigress of an Eleanor plays every angle to retain power.
Steve Wojtas is patriotic and impassioned as Philip the Bastard, and Bailey Duncan creates a tender and touching Arthur. As French King Philip, Fredric Stone captures the frustration of a ruler caught in a treacherous political tide. A. Bryan Humphrey is a wily and opportunistic Cardinal Pandulph, and Roderick Peeples struggles to be simultaneously true to his conscience and his king.
Rodriguez's taut direction drives the action forward and is consistently clear and direct. By trimming text and combining some minor characters, she makes it easy to track who is who in this complicated landscape.
Robert Mark Morgan's stark set with its stone pillars and bare, wintry trees and Donna Ruzika's dark, moody lighting produce a bleak and ominous feeling. Bill Black's richly colored, layered costumes are both utilitarian and elegant. John's fur-trimmed cloaks are particularly striking. Barry Funderburg's dramatic martial music and Jason Armit's exciting battle sequences sweep the production along.
"King John" is not staged often, but this strong production makes it well worth seeing. Its vivid portrait of England's unstable political climate sets the stage for the histories that will follow.
Review: 'King John'
An intelligent production of "King John" that makes this rarely staged history exciting and accessible.
When • Reviewed July 3; continues in rotating repertory with two other productions Mondays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. through Aug. 31.
Where • Adams Shakespearean Theatre at the Utah Shakespeare Festival on the campus of Southern Utah University, 300 West and Center Street, Cedar City.
Tickets • $23 to $72 with discounts for groups, students, and seniors. Tickets and information available at (800) PLAYTIX (752-9849) or http://www.bard.org.
Running time • Two hours and 15 minutes (including an intermission).