Actors Theatre’s current offering, a production of William Shakespeare’s lesser-known history play “King John¹,” is another collaborative effort with a theatre company from outside of Louisville. This time it’s the upstart crow collective that originated this version of “King John” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The adapted script, which seems to generally stick pretty close to the original, comes courtesy of upstart crow founding member Rosa Joshi, who also serves as the production’s director.
The production is highly stylized, employing minimal set pieces, clever staging, and aesthetically arresting use of light, sound, and projections. It also features theatrical movement pieces throughout, including the innovative and iterative conceptualization of battlefield combat, as well as a visual allusion in several key moments to a huge game of chess. But with all that going on, this “King John” never feels like it is trying to be innovative or edgy, and none of the self-congratulation one experiences when watching high-concept takes on classical works. For all the cool stuff going on, this production never seems to be doing something other than telling the story as well as it possibly can.
Let’s be honest up front, on the page “King John” is not one of the Bard’s more approachable works, and I say that as a big fan of the play. All of Shakespeare’s historical works have a lot of characters, unfamiliar naming conventions, characters changing their names, reliance on geography most Americans don’t know, etc., and “King John” is perhaps the most complex. I imagine that a production in the hands of a less skilled company would be an incomprehensible grab bag of backstabs, betrayals, and princely pissing contests. Which is a shame, because a lot is going on just under the surface. Thankfully upstart crow manages to explore and explode the script, using playful and brisk comedy to lure us in, while giving the upsetting and emotionally powerful moments the space they need to breathe. “King John” is two parts “The Great,” one part “Momix,” and one part “Game of Thrones.” (Without all the triggering assaults and torture scenes.)
One of my favorite elements of Shakespeare’s writing is his unparalleled ability to pen savage shit-talking, and “King John” has more petty posturing and insults than a middle school boys’ locker room. While almost everyone in the ensemble gets plenty of opportunities to throw down some sick burns, King John has many of the best lines. As the titular king, Kate Wisniewski (also a founding member of the upstart crows) brings an excellent petulance that paints the king’s emotional insecurity with a wry grin, while stopping short of imbuing her character with the sense of ineptitude that Shakespeare’s other weak kings exude. King John is a petty whining jerk, but you still get the sense that he can bring pain on a battlefield.
Another comedic stand-out is Lisa Tejero (she/her) as Cardinal Pandulph. The absolute condescension and ease with which Pandulph handles the royals bring smirks rather than guffaws, all the better to let the cardinal transform into a sinister political operative at the drop of a zucchetto. In a collection of squabbling children who cause destruction with their tantrums, Pandulf is the truly malicious figure. At an extra-textual level, Shakespeare’s attitude towards the Catholic church is a chilling reminder of sectarian violence and the Wars of the Reformation that gripped Europe before, during, and after Shakespeare’s lifetime.
In a lot of Shakespeare’s histories, it’s easy to walk away with the impression that there are good guys and bad guys. Henry V? Good guy.² Richard III? Bad guy. Richard II isn’t a bad guy per se, but he’s a weak king, soooooo Henry IV is a good guy for removing the weak king… right? One of this script’s strengths highlighted ably in this production, is that more than any other single³ history play from Shakespeare, it is impossible to impose any kind of good guys versus bad guys crap onto these characters. They’re all just absolute selfish-bastard power-hungry jerks. Though often quite likably so. The few arguably decent human beings on display are the ones with the least power and the least ability to control their fates. More on that later. First, back to the bastards.
Well — the bastard, I should say, aka Sir Phillip, aka Sir Richard Plantagenet, aka Faulconbridge (characters change names a lot in the histories). Similar to “Henry IV”’s venal and fictitious⁴ Sir John Falstaff overshadowing all the actual historical figures in that play, “King John” is dominated by a fictional character of questionable morals: a bastard son of the dearly departed King Richard Coeur De Leon. The rowdy, self-proclaimed bastard doesn’t stop shit-talking and stirring up violence up until the final moments of the show. As a fan of this script and a committed bastard stan, I’ll admit that the actor playing The Bastard had a lot to live up to. But from the moment actor Rami Margron (they/them) bounces onto the stage, they bring a surfeit of… well, call it steaz, rizz, BDE or what you will, Margron brings it, with all the cocksure attitude one could hope for. If you have a weakness for bad boy energy, prepare to swoon. Like Iago in “Othello,” the titular Richard III, or Edmund (also a bastard!) in “King Lear,” this bastard gets a lot of time to directly address the audience, implicating and inviting us to enjoy their morally questionable actions. In the first of these moments, we see that Margron’s command of Shakespeare’s language is even more impressive than their swagger.
With all the sword measuring and violence, “King John” still has a beating heart, and it lives in King John’s nephew Arthur, portrayed by Brenda Joyner (she/her), and Artur’s caretaker Hubert, played by Sarah Harlett. As noted earlier, these two mostly decent humans are pawns in the hands of violent powerful people. Joyner and Harlett’s scenes impart a sense of vulnerability that reminds us nothing gold can stay, with Hartlett also getting a few great comedic takes earlier in the play as Hubert’s city is about to be sacked.
I’ll throw in one last shout-out, to the only Louisville-based actor in this production. I am an unabashed member of The Mollie Murk Fan Cub™, and it was a real joy to see them shake it up with this awesome cast.
It’s worth noting that upstart crow collective (which is named for a quote about Shakespeare, not by Shakespeare) is one of the few theatre groups dedicated to producing classical work⁵ with all women and non-binary actors. There is still a HUGE gender imbalance in casting across the Shakespeare industrial complex, with companies all over the world contentedly cranking out productions with a dozen or so men onstage and just a handful of women, and usually zero transgender people. Redressing that imbalance is important work. Big ups to Actors Theatre for bringing this production to town. (I’d love to see them find the funding to bring the upstart crows back to town to create an all-new production).
“King John” is a must-see for fans of Shakespeare, who probably aren’t going to get a chance to see this script onstage again anytime soon, and also a rewarding watch for anyone who doesn’t demand to be hand-fed a ham-fisted history full of heroes and fiends.
¹For those keeping score, by the time the Bard wrote “King John,” he had already chronicled the lives and deaths of Richard II, Richard III, Edward III, and given the world three plays worth of the life and death of Henry VI. But he had yet to grace the world with his two-part “Henry IV,” his “Henry V,” or “Henry VIII.”
²He wasn’t. He was a f*cking monster. Check out Ed West’s “My Kingdom for a Horse” for a great breakdown of the War of the Roses.
³When you put all three Henry VI’s together, it has a very similar effect, as witnessed by Kentucky Shakespeare’s 2022 supercut production.
⁴You better gtfo with that “But blah blah blah Sir John Oldcastle” crap.
⁵If you’re interested in seeing some more all-woman Shakespeare, find the Donmar Warehouse version of “Julius Caesar.” It’s available for streaming and download.
By William Shakespeare
Adapted & directed by Rosa Joshi
Produced in association with upstart crow collective
November 8-19, 2023
Actors Theatre of Louisville
The Bingham Theater
315 W. Main St.
Featuring Sarah Harlett, Brenda Joyner, Jessica Ko, Rami Magron, J. Moliere, Mollie Murk, Deanalis Arocho Resto, Carmen Roman, Betsy Schwartz, Vilma Silva, Lisa Tejero, and Kim Wisniewski.