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OSF 2006 - King John: What's Not to Like?

September 01, 2006

Michael Elich as King John (center) with Jeanne Paulsen as Eleanor of Aquitaine and René Millán as Philip. Photo: Jenny Graham. 2006

I really enjoy the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. This is my fourth year attending the festival and even though this visit has been more truncated than in years past, things are already off to a great start. The first production I’ve seen this year is Shakespeare’s King John and it represents much of what I like about the festival and why I keep coming back.

King John is hardly the strongest play Shakespeare left us. It’s no Richard III – in fact, it’s no Richard II. But after seeing this excellent production directed by John Sipes and starring Michael Elich as King John, it’s hard for me to understand why this play is so maligned. Yes, the plot wanders and the focus seems to shift rapidly and without reason as if Shakespeare himself wasn’t sure of what the point was. However, this play is still stronger than half of what I’ve seen in contemporary theaters in NY, London, or LA.

Of course this King John benefits in no small part from the traditionally high OSF production values and acting. The women in the cast especially stand out with Jeanne Paulsen as Eleanor of Aquitaine and Robynn Rodriguez as Constance giving firm but never shrill performances. Also of note is René Millán whose Philip, was executed with a youthful assurance and energy that grabs attention but is restrained enough not to seem cloying.

Emma Harding as Arthur, Duke of Brittany. Photo: Jenny Graham. 2006

OSF does do Shakespeare well most of the time and this can especially benefit lesser-performed works like King John or last years Henry VI Parts I, II, and III. In this production the costumes were updated to the early 20th century and full use was made of AV effects by projecting images related to the action onto the otherwise static set during scene changes. While these are certainly not original ideas, they are an excellent example of the care and attention OSF provides to a rarely performed work. Perhaps the wisest choice however, was Sipes' decision to emphasize the aspects of the story concerning the child Arthur's claim to the throne. This focus makes the most of the often described undertones in the play ascribed to Shakespeare’s loss of his own child during the completion of this work. In the end this production comes off as more than the cliché indictment of the horrors of war or a historical play being used as an allegory of our own times. The focus is on the moral lassitude and shifting allegiances and how we pay the price for these common failings in achieving our goals. In King John these aren't the traits of the evil or weak, but are part of the darker components of the human character. It emphasizes the very things about Shakespeare’s writing that has allowed it to survive – what Harold Bloom calls the invention of the human.

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