Shakespeare wrote his own game of thrones. It’s called “King John,” although among the English dynastic chronicles known as the history plays, the lumbering “John” is not his best. It doesn’t even make the top five. But it does boast some noteworthy characters — particularly the troublemaking Constance, a royal, self-dramatizing stage mother intent on seeing her son ascend to the throne — and a sometimes juicy discourse on the warps in the monarchic tradition of inheriting the crown.
The play’s full name is “The Life and Death of King John” (some scholars doubt that is the moniker Shakespeare gave it), and in addition to truncating the title to the simpler “King John,” director Aaron Posner has made some clarifying adjustments for which Folger Theatre audiences can be grateful. To wit, a clever prologue has been added to help explain the byzantine plot, involving the factions and kingdoms seeking to put their own favorites on the English throne, and three, count ’em, three, royals and wannabes with claims to rule.
Posner, a playwright and director who has achieved some of his best results at Folger with Shakespeare’s thornier works, demonstrates again with “King John” a deft command of the art of the overhaul. Lacking a truly galvanizing character — the weak and dissembling John is no Henry V or Richard II — the play has neither a satisfying core nor a powerhouse finale. Nevertheless, Posner builds a lucid argument for the play through a fleet handling of the plot mechanics and a fine cast that includes Holly Twyford as Constance, Bryan Dykstra as John and Kate Eastwood Norris as the bastard pretender to the throne, Philip.
And while you won’t come away from this production remarking on a night of superior drama, you will have gratifyingly broadened your knowledge of Shakespeare and your appreciation of Folger’s ongoing campaign to expose audiences to the astonishing range of Shakespeare’s mind and interests.
In “King John,” his curiosity leads him to a contemplation of legitimacy — the political, psychological and spiritual foundation of leadership — as the reign of John is challenged. A son of Henry II, John acquires the crown after the deaths of his brothers Richard the Lionheart and Geoffrey. But a conniving French king (Howard W. Overshown), a meddling papal envoy (Sasha Olinick) and some ambitious relatives at court have other ideas. Constance, given impassioned heft by Twyford, wants Arthur (Megan Graves), her son by Geoffrey, installed. Meanwhile, Norris’s Philip, an out-of-wedlock son of Richard the Lionheart, becomes yet another rival, after King John himself intervenes and declares him, by a legal loophole, a legitimate heir.
“John is now king: Should he be?” is the question Posner poses in the preamble of his own devising. It’s the question that drives the evening and, just as crucially, the paranoia of the king in a court decked out becomingly by costume designer Sarah Cubbage in Victorian bowler hats and petticoats. Andrew Cohen’s set, where the only omnipresent fixture is a wooden throne, reflects the unsettled air of the English realm; above the chair is suspended a primitive crown, awaiting, it seems, the rightful head to fill it.
Dykstra’s John seems the right kind of John for the representation of a realm in disarray. He posits John as unpolished, impatient and prone to rashness; his authorization of his henchman Hubert to dispatch nephew Arthur may not be singular in the bloody history of English royal family affairs, but it does signal his homicidal inadequacy. And by the way, Elan Zafir plays Hubert, torn by affection for Arthur, with such exceptional emotionality that he makes a powerful case for this secondary character to be the humane touchstone for the play. (Twyford’s embodiment of a mother’s grief contributes to another memorable interlude.)
Norris makes a strong masculine impression here. While she’s played Lady Macbeth at Folger twice, her performance as Philip has a reviewer wondering whether she might not also at some point be a remarkable Macbeth, or perhaps even Richard II? Graves and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh are among other cast members who provide sharply defined performances and reveal a masterly ease with the verse.
You’ll have to supply your own answer to the point-blank question about legitimacy this production asks. But it doesn’t take much cerebration to discern how, at a time when the American public anguishes over foreign manipulations in the selection of its leader, the idea at the heart of “King John” pulsates with relevance.
King John, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Aaron Posner. Set, Andrew Cohen; costumes, Sarah Cubbage; lighting, Max Doolittle; original music and sound, Lindsay Jones; production stage manager, Becky Reed. With Akeem Davis, Kate Goehring, Alina Collins Maldonado, Brian Reisman. About 2 hours 20 minutes. $42-$79. Through Dec. 2 at Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St. SE. folger.edu/theatre or 202-544-7077.