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    King John

    Clowning glory

    Shakespeare's forgettable "King John" is gleefully demolished in a terrific new version packed with bumbled dialogue and overwrought death scenes.


    "King John" is one of Shakespeare's least fascinating plays, and the cast of Doppelgang Productions' current production gives it perhaps the clumsiest, most unprofessional performance it's had in 400 years.

    Full title: King John: Mad World! Mad Kings! Mad Composition!.
    Company: Doppelgang Productions.
    Written by: William Shakespeare, more or less.
    Directed by: Ian Marshall.
    Cast: Jeremy Sumpman, Mary Workman, Gabriel Vaughan, Dan Renkin, Matt Steinberg, Heather Grayson, Milo Eriksen, Chris DePaola, Megan MacKenzie Lawrence, Philip Cuomo, Tom Knutson, David Dartley, Anna Zastrow, Sage Logan, Anna Hughes, Helene Deme Elzevir, Amy Ellenberger.

    Related links: Official site
    Mazer Theater
    197 East Broadway (bet. Clinton & Jefferson)
    Previews start: May 2, 2002
    May 3-18, 2002

    It's a perfect match.

    Packed with overlong speeches and barely simmering with intrigue, the bard's history gets no respect from the company, whose idea of presenting the would-be-serious play as a Commedia dell'Arte-style slapstick-packed farce succeeds fabulously.

    The story has something to do with King John (the Magna Carta and Robin Hood-era regent), who gets to take the throne even though technically it should go to the young Prince Arthur, which irritates the pope, causing France to go to war with England. A bunch of people get bumped off and finally Henry III emerges as a much better choice all around, being, after all, still alive.

    We know something's amiss with the production from the time it lurches to a start. The bored actors — doing their warmups, packing themselves into their bustiers and bickering with one another as we enter the theater — halfheartedly try to get organized and start the show as one of the cast members chats loudly on her cell phone. ("Right now I am so sick of this cast. I've slept with most of them — I mean, not Tom Knutson, but  . . . ")

    King John  
    It still seems like Shakespeare might win this smackdown at first, as the first few scenes get a respectful treatment with only as much comedy as the bard has built in. But as Will thrusts with ever longer and more tedious speeches, the cast parries with mockery, slapstick, wordplay, pratfalls, flubbed lines, missed cues, and scenes from entirely different plays and movies. They stop to mug at unintentionally funny lines like "Alack, how new is 'husband' in my mouth" and "To England go — I shall whet on the king!" It's just so wrong.

    Every misperformance in the show is praiseworthy, but just to pick out a handful . . .

    The unslept-with Tom Knutson plays a tall, gangly Cardinal Pandulph with an increasingly flighty flamboyance. Philip Cuomo turns the relatively inconsequential Hubert into a wild-haired, bug-eyed comedic triumph. And Jeremy Sumpman and the regal-voiced Dan Renkin are masterful in a pair of long-winded dueling speeches between the English and French kings that are mercifully condensed to about 60 seconds, delivered simultaneously, inaccurately, and at auctioneer speed.

      The actors stop to mug at unintentionally funny lines like "Alack, how new is 'husband' in my mouth" and "To England go — I shall whet on the king!" It's just so wrong.
    And every death scene is delicious, starting with the highly inappropriate poisoning of Queen Elinor (Mary Workman), the horrendously overacted collapse of Blanch (Megan MacKenzie Lawrence) and the mistimed death plunge of Arthur (Milo Eriksen). King John himself (Sumpman) is still dying gruelingly as the show is trying to end. And the most spectacularly bizarre expiration belongs to Heather Grayson as Arthur's scheming mother, Constance. Grayson turns her seemingly endless final speech into the babbled swan song of a voluptuous torch singer in which something goes horribly wrong with a feather boa, and when death finally comes, it does so in a hilariously unexpected way.

    Shakespeare purists might have a hard time enduring this piece of theatrical malpractice. But if the bard himself were in the house, there's no question he would have enjoyed many good laughs at his own expense.

    MAY 16, 2002

    Reader comments on King John:

  • King John   from Karen Moriarty, May 18, 2002

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