William Shakespeare’s episodic pageant “King John” is, perhaps, the Bard’s most rarely staged historical play. Despite taking the customary path of courtly intrigue, examining the legitimacy of the English throne and even offering swashbuckling swordplay and a war with France, the drama lacks the compelling narrative found in, say, “King Lear” or “Henry V.”
As staged by Paul Mullins at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, the actors bring individual clarity to their roles, while the rambling plot serves as a mere patchwork tapestry.
Ian Kahn as the bastard son Philip Faulconbridge is the play’s dashing centerpiece. He offers a robust account of the events that lead to the death and downfall of John. The character doubles as a kind of witty observer of the action, and Kahn’s amiable asides heighten the drama’s few lighter moments.
Although the women’s parts are negligible, Laila Robins brings commanding presence to Lady Constance, the mother of a doomed prince. She brings a parent’s grief and wrath into the theater aisle with the rage of a gathering storm. Cristine McMurdo-Wallis adds a warming touch of courtly maternal wisdom as Eleanor of Aquitaine.
However, Andrew Weems in the pivotal title role offers more bellow than balance. He lacks the regal grace required and misses nuance and stature. John is a weak monarch, and neither actor nor our beloved playwright has made him very interesting.
There is a remarkably assured performance by Austin Colaluca, a sixth-grader, as the doomed Arthur. In an unwieldy play, a touching scene in which an unlikely executioner prepares to burn out the eyes of a young prince with a smoldering hot iron becomes the evening’s most compelling moment. As Arthur’s appointed murderer and ultimately his protector, John Ahlin offers sturdy support.
Brian Reddy is the manipulative cardinal, and he enacts a most blowsy villain with ruddy authority. Fight director Robert Sordelet has staged a dandy clash of crossed swords.
The set design by Anita Stewart begins as a council room, with a sprawling, three-sided jigsaw of a map, which deteriorates as the play progresses. The costumes, a functional mix of stately medieval and modern, never distract from the action.