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“King John” — Good Play about a Bad Guy

“King John” – Good Play about a Bad Guy

Just as hurricane names are retired after they cause devastation, the name John
seems to be off-limits for British kings. One John was plenty. This was the same king who usurped his brother’s throne while Richard was on the Crusades and the same who harried Robin Hood. He’s also the king who was forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1215 when his over-taxed barons demanded their “ancient liberties” back.

Marin Shakespeare’s Managing Director, Lesley Currier, has revived the Bard’s seldom-seen “King John” with a dynamic blend of fine acting and history. To appreciate this production fully, be sure to read Ms. Currier’s program notes before the action begins.

John has succeeded his popular brother, Richard Lionheart — killed in France by a crossbow — and is receiving an ultimatum sent by Philip, King of France, to relinquish all English claims to French territory. John refuses, though war between the two countries is sure to result. The ambassador leaves, and a pair of brothers arrives, one of whom claims to be King Richard’s illegitimate son. John’s mother, Elinor, sees the resemblance, and the older brother is knighted Sir Richard. He’s eager for the fight.

Back in France, King Philip’s ambassador delivers the bad news that England will not negotiate, and war is imminent. The court shelters young Arthur, son of John’s older brother Geffrey, and his devoted mother Constance, Geffrey’s widow.

(Those who are keeping score can see that there are now three possible claimants to the throne. Will there be more?)

A full-scale war erupts around the amphitheatre, after which it’s agreed that John’s niece, Lady Blanch, should marry Lewis, the French Dauphin; Arthur will be given a land grant as a consolation prize. Sir Richard, who has taken a fancy to Blanch, calls this peace agreement “most base and vile.” Everyone’s taking sides. Austria switches its allegiance to England; Cardinal Pandulph, the Pope’s emissary from Rome, is turned away, but first he excommunicates John and warns that France must not become his ally. King Philip chooses to remain with the Church, and the fight continues.

Shakespeare, by all accounts, never traveled, so it’s pardonable that he might have thought France and England were closer neighbors. But here’s where the Director’s program notes are essential.

Elizabethan audiences were proudly English and disdainful of foreigners. Besides, Gloriana herself might be in the audience. So Shakespeare’s French are shown as foppish and arrogant, his Austrian’s a brute in animal skins, and his Catholic emissary is deceitful. This way, even though King John is known to be a bad guy, he’s not as bad as the others.

There are thirty-three in the cast, and the ensemble playing is seamless. Scott Coopwood is a masterful King John, chilling in his conversations with Hubert (James Hiser.) Barry Kraft plays the beleaguered French King, torn between his love of country and this duty to the Church. Steven Muterspaugh portrays the Cardinal, accurately predicting John’s end. Liz Sklar, mother to young Arthur, holds the audience with her grief when Arthur’s been spirited away to England, and Erik MacRay is the ambitious Sir Richard.

And yes, there is another heir. In a wonderful concluding scene, Sir Richard will deliver the crown, and the Plantagenets will be redeemed.

“King John” plays at the Forest Meadows Amphitheatre in Dominican University, San Rafael in repertory with “Midsummer Night’s Dream” through Aug. 12. Parking and restroom facilities have been remodeled and greatly improved since last season. The amphitheatre is still outdoors, though, so playgoers should dress for the weather.

Ticket prices range from zero (under 18 on Family Day matinees) to $22. For complete information or reservations, please see or call the box office, 499-4488.

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