A Good King John; Two Solo Shows

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King John by William Shakespeare
Although it is rarely produced and deals with Shakespeare's earliest historical material (the ruler of England from 1199-1216), King John is, in a crude sense, the Shakespeare history play most directly applicable to the modern world. A story about the conflict between honor and what Shakespeare calls "Commodity" (Machiavellian self-interest) during John's struggles with France, the Pope and rebellious lords at home, it is easily read as an object lesson about the limits of basely expedient political compromise, questionable forms of political patronage and the ever-popular "character question." Of course, none of Shakespeare's truly mature plays can be legitimately reduced to object lessons. If one happens to be bent on producing King John, however, it's a plus that its schematic themes can seem to speak straight to boom-time America from the dawn of capitalist individualism.

One or more of the coolly decked-out actors are conspicuously seated among the audience at all times, apparently underlining that the play isn't merely about disgusting political machinations but also the detached observation and judgment of them. This innocuous alienation effect neither irritated nor pleased me to begin with. Having asked the king to settle an inheritance dispute, the Bastard (né Philip Falconbridge) is given a choice early on whether to accept the Falconbridge family land or landless recognition as the king's kin (along with the chance to seek his fortune in John's imminent war with France). He chooses landless recognition, is knighted "Sir Richard Plantagenet" and proves a brave and fiercely loyal soldier (truly his father's son). Once he witnesses John's coldly opportunistic compromises, however?the first phase of the war is abruptly settled with a mutually beneficial marriage?he starts to ask penetrating and sometimes sarcastic questions about the sanctity of royal vows and veneration of material gain. And this is where I lost patience with Coonrod's decision to project his circumspection willy-nilly onto the whole company by making them all "spectators": if everyone in the play is essentially a colluding narrator like him, then his unique role is hopelessly diluted.

The beating heart of King John?and, yes, there is one?is the story of the Bastard's bemused progress from naive obscurity to political maturity. The play does frequently scutter across dryly illustrative political territory, but it is basically a dramatic bildungsroman tracing Sir Richard's spiritual growth to the point where everyone can see that he ought to be king and he has acquired a broad view of realpolitik. A good production of the play needs above all a clear attitude toward his story, his trajectory as a political observer, and a guide to the audience's changing view of John (who is kingly to begin with but becomes less and less fit to rule following the death of his strong mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and his complicity in the death of his young nephew Arthur). This trajectory is what Coonrod and the actor Derek Smith, who plays the Bastard, most egregiously miss.

With his blackened eye sockets, stiffly tousled hair, manly turquoise sweater and snakeskin cowboy boots, Smith certainly looks the part of the reluctant swashbuckler, and he has several genuinely forceful moments when standing his ground against the other nobles. His demeanor, however, is entirely too stiff and posturing, combining passive physical vigor with a vaguely anemic, spurious, even slightly swishy air that keeps his strong moments from cohering or building to any lucid purpose. His character doesn't seem to grow, coming off in his final speech as essentially the same artificially moody, unremarkably likable fellow who stomped ignobly across the stage in frustration three acts earlier: "This bawd [Commodity], this broker, this all-changing word? Hath drawn him [King John]? To a most base [stomp] and vile-concluded [stomp] peace."

Happily, the production also contains bits of strong acting and clever directing. Michael Rogers is vividly intense and impressively controlled as Hubert, the Citizen of Angiers, a role that requires several difficult onstage emotional reversals. Pamela Nyberg is memorably wretched as both Lady Falconbridge and Lady Constance, the grievously ambitious widow of John's other brother Geoffrey (who wants her young son Arthur on the throne). Nicholas Kepros is also excellent as Chatillon, the French Ambassador, and Cardinal Pandolph, an avuncular, unruffled snake of a prelate capable of stirring up untold destruction with a wag of his honey-tongue. Several of the other multiple castings are unfortunately confusing and detract from the actors' separate portrayals, particularly Katie MacNichol appearing as Blanche of Castile and then as the English and French messengers, and Michael Ray Escamilla in the three child-roles of Arthur, John's son Henry and the Bastard's spindly half-brother.

Coonrod has a shrewd sense of how to clarify and lighten potentially heavy action, and it serves her well in this somewhat dry and demonstrative work. Blanche and Louis the Dauphin, for instance, growl at each other sotto voce rather than maintain diplomatic politeness when they are betrothed. The warring English and French kings repeat one blustering exchange three times ("France, hast thou yet more blood to cast away?" "England, thou hast not sav'd one drop of blood/In this hot trial more than we of France") until it is devoid of real enmity and merely betokens the cynical bargaining to come. The newly allied kings then clasp hands like headstrong school chums in the presence of the teacherly Pandolph, who is determined to separate them, eventually releasing each other with eye-rolling pique. All this and more makes for a sleek and nimble production that falters badly only on the one note that might have given it substantial pith and purpose.

American Place Theater, 111 W. 46th St. (betw. 6th & 7th Aves.), 239-6200, through Feb. 20.


=celebration by Ethan Sandler and Josie Dickson

Hundreds of Sisters & One Big Brother by Deborah Swisher

Two autobiographical solo shows that opened recently in New York, Ethan Sandler's =celebration (pronounced "equals celebration") and Deborah Swisher's Hundreds of Sisters & One Big Brother, unfortunately fall into the typical pattern of woe for this all-too-commonplace genre. Each features a young and charismatic performer who has confused an ability to impersonate others and document experiences with a capacity for truly illuminating insight into those others and experiences.

Sandler, whose show was cowritten by Josie Dickson, narrates a 1400-mile car trip he took last October from Times Square to the Disney town of Celebration, FL, with many quaint and reportedly suggestive stops along the way. His observations about such matters as gated communities, food courts, online shopping and Disney's image of American perfection remain on the level of facile irony, as in his fantasy phone message in which Michael Eisner begs for his time in the voice of a nervous, deferential college kid.

Swisher's show, only slightly more sophisticated, is an account of growing up, half-Jewish and half-black, in a California commune, identified only at the end as Synanon (which began as a rehabilitation project for drug addicts and alcoholics but ran into legal trouble in the 1970s and 80s after its members started gathering weapons and its Big Brother-like leader temporarily skipped the country). Swisher's descriptions and enactments are picturesque but also unaccountably banal, extremely evasive politically and confusing on many basic matters (the title, for instance, misleadingly suggests that she lived only with females). One appreciates her efforts to be accurate and fair, but this show is inadvertently Pollyanna, revealing her as ostensibly independent-minded but still largely clueless about, say, why her chainsmoking mother ended up in a place like Synanon, or why anyone from the outside might have cause to question its manipulative, cultlike beliefs and practices in fundamental (rather than superficial) terms.

Largely a by-product of the dearth of meaty roles for the hundreds of talented performers who stream into this city every year, the epidemic of autobiographical solo shows continues to claim innocent victims.

=celebration, through Feb. 27 at the John Houseman Studio Theater, 450 W. 42nd St. (betw. 9th & 10th Aves.), 592-4005.

Hundreds of Sisters & One Big Brother, through Feb. 27 at the Harold Clurman Theater, 412 W. 42nd St. (betw. 9th & 10th Aves.), 279-4200.

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