Bad King: Voices Found stages an obscure classic

Voices Found Repertory

by Jeff Grygny

The Victorians supposedly loved Shakespeare’s King John for its opportunity to indulge in the “royalty porn” of lavish pageantry. But the current production by Voices Found Repertory strips pageantry down to a chunky chair and a coronet, and it’s easy to see why the play is seldom produced anymore: the plot is heavy with political intrigue and improbable reversals, while light in psychological insight and the dazzling poetics of old Billy’s more famous works. Yet, in the hands of this earnest young company, the play seems fresh, its cynicism quite in tune with the daily news, and what it lacks in subtlety it makes up in carnivalesque disorder. With honest, committed performances and some cheeky stylistic flourishes, this production is a lot more fun than you’d ever expect an obscure 500 year old play to be.

John Plantagenet (“John soft-sword” to his subjects) is commonly regarded as a terrible king. This play shows us quite a different King John that the one we might have heard about: there’s nothing about the Sheriff of Nottingham or the Magna Charta, and only glancing reference to the great failure that gave him the mocking nickname “Lack-land:” he gave away the rich English territory of Normandy to the French King Philip as the price of preserving his rule (after John, English royalty for the first time had to actually live in England). The John we see is vain, superficial, conniving, and not too bright. He doesn’t sport a blond comb-over—but we get the idea why we’re seeing this show now.

This historical saga lurches through nonstop sudden changes that must have been even harder to live through than they are to follow: fights suddenly break out and are just as suddenly broken off; war is declared, then peace is brokered; the enemies team up, then they’re at war again. All this instability stems from John’s incompetent rule: at one point he orders a minion to murder a boy prince, then later rails against that same minion, yelling basically “why didn’t you stop me?” The henchman, moved by conscience, spares the prince, but the boy dies anyway in an unaccounted act of self-defenestration. King John is full of such “Shakespearean weirdness” —things that any student playwright would be made to edit out in the final draft—but give it the carnivalesque disorder of a Tarantino movie. The company—college students fueled by passion for their art—may not capture every nuance of the text, but they make up for it with intelligence and clarity. And it’s fascinating to see how the themes of the more famous plays— revenge, power, self-deception, violence, and bastardy— echo in this one.

Director Jake Russell Thompson keeps things moving along cinematically, adding touches of telling nonverbal business that keep the characters grounded in truth, with grace notes and irreverent flourishes that bring the play to life—like when the king pulls out a smart phone to play the theme music for his speeches. In the title role, Brandon Judah dominates the stage as a smirking narcissist, not devoid of charisma, who can’t get rid of that nagging feeling that he’s faking it. He’s a big baby in a crown. In these days of cross-gender casting we often see young women trying to convince us they’re old-time warriors; the evidently female Jeremy Labelle nails it. Towering over most of the other players, with blackened eye and primitive tattoos, her Faulconbridge is the sort who’s only happy when skulls are cracking—the very type who is drawn into the orbit of dictators.

Thanks to some very helpful program notes, we can mostly follow the overly-complicated relationships. Not every player achieves the diction we need to understand them; there are a few botched lines here and there, and a bit of sound and fury. But for the most part the performances have great integrity, clarity, and directness, adhering to their self-imposed challenge  “to take off fancy tricks, stop “acting,” and get to the truth of the text.” One of the most effective scenes, when John’s minion tells the boy that he must brutally lose his eyes, is delivered by Nick Hurtgen and Graham Billings in a near monotone hush. As the prince’s mother, Brittany Ann Meister shows both iron resolve and a deep emotional reservoir. Sarah Zapiain portrays a meddlesome papal legate as a hunched homunculus with a curious fascination for cupcakes. And Brandon Haut shows perhaps the most development as Louis the Dauphin, growing from a blushing groom to a brooding Hamlet-like avenger.

In the end, King John might not amount to much more than an antique political cartoon—but it’s so full of intrigue and juicy melodrama that, told with a blend of seriousness and irreverence by this dedicated journeyman company, it’s a consistently entertaining one, with parallels to our current state that are unmistakable to anyone who is willing to see them. It goes to show that politics under poor leadership becomes a royal clusterbleep —even back in Merrie Old England.

Voices Found Repertory presents

The Life and Death of King John
by William Shakespeare

playing through July 22

at the Arcade Theater in The Underground Collaborative
161 W. Wisconsin Ave., Lower Level

Tickets at