Encore Michigan

Puzzle Piece brings the death of ‘King John’ to life

ReviewShakespeare February 09, 2019 David Kiley

King John, brother of Richard The Lionheart and youngest son of Henry II is known to the masse largely through the play and movie “The Lion in Winter and the legend of Robin Hood. Puzzle Piece Theatre is currently performing the seldom done Shakespeare play about his life, The Life and Death of King John.

John is written about and portrayed in the arts mostly as a sniveling snot of a man. In The Lion in Winter, he is practically rabid. In Robin Hood, an insecure King following in the footsteps of the more beloved Richard. In Puzzle Piece’s adaptation of the story, directed by D.B. Schroeder, actor John Denyer captures just enough of the manic, whiney, testy, sulky John to convey a clear character we can get our arms around without John slipping into cartoon.

After the death of Richard The Lionheart, John takes the throne. But as is the case so often in England’s monarchical history, some people are not so keen on the ascension. France, for one, is cool to the idea and urges John to step down in favor of Arthur (Analise Schroeder), son of John’s dead older brother Geoffrey. John adjudicates an inheritance dispute between Robert Falconbridge (Inney Prakash) and John’s older brother, Philip “The Bastard” (Joe Sfair). But it soon becomes clear that Philip is not John’s half-brother, but rather his nephew, son of Richard. King Philip of France (Jason Garza) advocates for Arthur, while Philip The Bastard has support from the Duke of Austria (Steve Xander Carson).

John’s Mother Eleanor (Amy Choudhury Martin) is not in favor of Arthur succeeding John. Meanwhile, King Philip’s son, Louis the Dauphin, is put forward to marry John’s niece Blanche (Jowi Estava Ghersi), a scheme that gives John a stronger claim to the throne, while Louis gains territory for France.  Constance (Colleen Lynn Miner) Arthur’s Mother, accuses Philip of abandoning her son, and Louis and Blanche are married.

If you are thinking all this makes for some confusing dialogue and characterization, you’d be right. Schroeder thinned out the cast a little from the original play, and thus the lines, to the essential characters and action. But it can still be tough to follow–one of the reasons the play is not often done; that, and the fact that there is nothing that comes within a mile of a giggle in the whole tragedy.

The Puzzle Piece production takes modern liberties with costuming, which also contributes to  “who’s that again?” moments. King John in sort of Kingly garb for the early 13th century. Eleanor, it seems, kind of finds something from the costume racks to sort of look Queenly, including the tiara. King Philip is in a 21st century suit, and Philip The Bastard is in a leather jacket. Cardinal Randolph, in from Rome to kibitz the proceedings, is in an overcoat albeit with a cross hanging from his waist. It feels a bit of a hodgepodge of garb, but this approach has become more common in low budget productions of Shakespeare.

Schroeder reveals in the program that producing King John is a labor of love, having been in a production many years ago in New Jersey. It is a good story, if a challenging one to stage in the small space of the Slipstream Initiative space in Ferndale. The set is almost non-existent, with just a single panel with a gothic window cutout.

But it’s Shakespeare’s words that matter most, and Puzzle Piece’s production honors that.

The cast is very sharp. Sfair plays the Bastard would-be King with a brooding edge that is a good counterpoint to Denyer’s King. Annie Dilworth plays both Hubert De Burgh, and a citizen, and captures the stage in both ensemble roles. The cast on the whole is very even and delivers very well on the work, which is not easy as Shakespeare can get downright doleful at times with some thick speeches around this manic King. But history gives us plenty to work with as so many people wanted this bug of a man off the throne that the court made the Trump White House seem like the steady machine of the Eisenhower administration.

The Life and Death of King John is full of palace intrigue. It was a frequently performed during the Victorian era, but has fallen out of favor in modern times. Puzzle Piece reminds us that it is worth a fresh look.

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