A hallucinatory domesticity marks this battle in early 13th-century France. Instead of swords, pikes and longbows, the troops are armed with modern household objects and sporting gear: a tennis racket; a golf club, a hobby horse, a mop. It’s as though, in the lead-up to this war, depicted early on in Shakespeare’s “King John,” the French and English armies had equipped themselves by raiding your hall closet.
Comforting objects put to menacing use: The image, evoking broader ideas of betrayal and unreliability, suits “King John,” which is on view in a smart if occasionally stiff production from WSC Avant Bard. The tale of a weak monarch contending with foreign powers and with a rival claimant to the English throne, “King John” is, after all, as crammed with political treachery, fleeting alliances and grand opportunistic maneuvering as a season of “House of Cards.”
Despite this potboiler content, “King John” is none-too-frequently staged: Chalk it down to the script’s sometimes absurdly lurching plotline and its diffuse focus on a range of characters. WSC Avant Bard artistic director Tom Prewitt has come up with a clever way to contextualize the play’s flaws and scenes of geopolitical turbulence, however: His production filters the story through the imagination of a young boy in Cold War America, making the characters, on one level, the inventions of a worried child who has overheard too much paranoid adult talk.
A warning siren opens the production, and the ensuing action eddies around a fallout shelter, with the characters initially wearing medieval cloaks slung over 20th-century dress. (Joseph Musumeci, Elizabeth Ennis and Bradley C. Porter designed the set, costumes and sound, respectively.) As the Child (Ethan Ocasio) watches — and sometimes participates — King John (Ian Armstrong), Queen Felipe of France (Charlotte Akin), the French Dauphin (William Hayes) and their relatives and underlings wage war and double-cross each other.
Bruce Alan Rauscher brings a suitably cynical tone to the play’s most interesting character, Philip the Bastard, a soliloquizing and slightly ominous figure who feels like a rough draft for Edmund from “King Lear.” (Elements in “King John” often call to mind situations and speeches from better-known Shakespeare plays, making this production’s child’s-eye view, with its mingling of the familiar and the exotic, seem particularly appropriate.)
Cam Magee deftly channels Queen Elinor, the canny, opinionated mother to Armstrong’s slightly buffoonish King John. Akin lends regal dignity to Queen Felipe (a gender-reversed version of the original script’s King Philip), while Rebecca Swislow (who doubles as Blanche of Spain) is a confident, dramatic presence as the rebellious Earl of Salisbury. And Christopher Henley is amusingly imperious as the manipulative Cardinal Pandulph.
Not all the performances are satisfying: As the peacemaker-turned-court-fixer Hubert, Slice Hicks exudes the same note of stolid perplexity throughout. And in a blunt portrait of John’s sister-in-law, Constance, Anne Nottage often layers great gobs of emotion onto her lines, rather than harnessing the power of Shakespeare’s language. A few of the actors sometimes look uncomfortable onstage, too, standing stiffly with clasped hands.
But Ocasio (a fifth-grader in real life) looks relatively at home as his character slips in and out of scenes, serving as the Bastard’s arm rest, holding the ledger as the Cardinal signs an excommunication decree; knocking a figurine off a Fisher-Price-style toy castle to evoke a character’s grisly death.
Aptly enough, as the production goes on, the story seems less obviously a product of the Child’s fevered fancy. In contrast to the early mop-and-tennis-racket battle, for instance, soldiers later in the play slink around in full military camouflage, armed with assault rifles, while gunfire sounds. Maybe King John’s turbulent world is coming into its own, after being conjured from the fallout shelter like a genie from a bottle. Or maybe the Child is growing up and learning how to wage war, and betray allies, for real.
Wren is a freelance writer.
by William Shakespeare. Directed by Tom Prewitt; lighting design, Joseph R. Walls; properties, Chelsea Mayo; fight direction, Robb Hunter and Craig Lawrence; dramaturg, Cam Magee; assistant director, Quill Nebeker. With Chuck Young, Kim Curtis, Connor J. Hogan and Sun King Davis. About two and a half hours. Through Nov. 24 at Theatre on the Run, 3700 S. Four Mile Run Dr., Arlington, Va. Tickets: $25-$35, with pay-what-you-can Saturday matinees. Visit www.wscavantbard.org or call 703-418-4808.