“The Life and Death of King John” – NY Shakespeare Exchange

It’s not often that one gets to see The Life and Death of King John (by William Shakespeare, no less), so when I received the press invite for the New York Shakespeare Exchange’s production, I jumped at the opportunity. The play has a curious history. It’s generally believed to have been written in the mid-1590s and published in 1598. There are accounts of the play’s popularity in the 1600s, but the first known production was in 1737. King John reached its peak popularity during the Victorian Era and has since fallen into considerable obscurity, and makes for a great punch line in the uproarious The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). The play deals with the reign of King John, and the controversies that surrounded his reign. It’s a bit of a mess, but I am grateful for the opportunity to actually see it onstage.

The New York Shakespeare Exchange was established in 2009 with the intent of fusing Shakespeare with new media and modern technology. King John is their first full production, after several readings and a Shakespearean pub crawl called “ShakesBEER” (where do I sign up?).  Set in a contemporary Manhattan loft, using Skype, smartphones, HDTVs, flip cams and a clever homage to TMZ, the production reflects a modern sensibility in almost every capacity. Artistic director Ross Williams, who adapted the play to meet his directorial concept keeps his entire company within sight of the audience at all times, staging the text at edge of your seat fever pitch that successfully feeds off the tension. Some of the video clips (Kate and William’s wedding, UK riots) go a bit overboard, but it’s still fascinating to see how Williams plays the past and present off each other. 

The strong cast is led by Drama Desk nominee Vince Gatton as John, offering an amusing and spirited exercise in entitlement and narcissism. Carmen Meyers played Eleanor of Aquitaine as if she were a 21st century corporate executive (though much to my disappointment, Shakespeare wasn’t as interested in the character as James Goldman was, but that’s neither here nor there). Another standout is Zac Hoogendyk, who made quite an impression as the Earl of Salisbury. Walking away with the entire show is Leigh Williams, whose titanic performance as Constance is a triumph of nuance and strength. My only disappointment is that the character doesn’t appear in the second act. 

For all its warts, I had a really good time with King John, more than I thought I would. The production, warts and all, made an interesting case for King John. I’m not fully convinced that the high tech concept is necessary for the telling of the story, but it made the evening highly entertaining. Special kudos to the spirited fight choreography by Alicia Rodis, who really had the cast rolling around the apartment set (and in a moment of inspired hilarity, had Eleanor using pepper spray). One quibble, though: I think the production could have benefitted from a larger venue. If this production is any indication, the New York Shakespeare Exchange is going to need one.