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'King John' [Review]

Hudson Warehouse brings Shakespeare’s gripping history play to life at Riverside Park.

The English and French courts assemble near Angiers to hear Lady Constance's (Julie Baber) tale.

We first wrote about Hudson Warehouse's production of King John in our preview of free summer theater in NYC. Now a few weeks into the summer season, the theater group has settled into their adopted home at the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument in Riverside Park, a beautiful spot for showcasing some of the most gruesome plots in Shakespeare's histories. In King John, which tells the story of the battle of succession and war with France in the aftermath of King Richard the Lionhearted's death, loyalties are tested and treasons planned, women fight for the rights of their sons to rule and the people of Angiers wait anxiously to greet their new king.

Powerful Performances from the Feuding Families

The greatest strength of the show was definitely the performances of the actors themselves. In such a stripped-down production and in a park setting with an audience easily prone to distraction, it was the actors who kept you on the edge of your seat.

The cast of the show consists largely of the English and French courts, who come together in a dispute over the town of Angiers (today in Western France, then controlled by England). King John claims the town for himself, while the French King Phillip II supports the claim of Arthur, the son of John's older brother Richard the Lionhearted. Tensions between the two groups are almost resolved early in the show when John proposes a marriage between his niece and King Phillip's son Louis, but a wrench is thrown into the mix with the arrival of Cardinal Pandulph, who excommunicates John and forces the two kingdoms back into war.

With such a play, it would be easy to focus only on the major players, the rivals for the throne, and for the rest of the cast to be forgettable. In Hudson Warehouse's case, however, that is far from true. What most caught my attention, in fact, were some of the smaller roles, from Leal Vona's engaging soliloquies as Sir Richard, Richard the Lionhearted's bastard son, to the incredibly strong women fighting for the rights of their sons to rule: John's mother Queen Eleanor (Monica Cangero) and Arthur's mother Lady Constance (Julie Baber). Baber's drive for revenge for John's disinheriting of her son is one of the highlights of the show. When the King of France accuses her of being "as fond of grief as you are of your son," he recognizes the complexity of a character who desperately desires to be heard when the royals are eager to make peace without her.

Other highlights of the show include the infuriating Cardinal Pandulph (Bruce Barton), determined to ruin England for disobeying the pope, destroying any possibility of the play ending with all of the audience's favorite characters still alive. Meanwhile, my favorite scene was the extremely dramatic showdown between Hubert (Linus Gelber), tasked with murdering John's now captured nephew Arthur (Jarrod Bates) against his own morals, and Arthur pleading for his life. Arthur had seemed a forgettable pawn up until that point, and Hubert simply a servant--this scene is where both actors and characters prove what they're made of.

A Sparse Shakespearean Stage for King John

The production made great use of the original architecture of the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument, not unlike what Shakespeare's original actors might have done at the Globe. It was quite difficult at times, however, to tell when the scene was meant to take place in England and when in France, as John's throne was the only set piece ever brought on stage. The costumes were similarly low-budget, a sometimes awkward combination of tunics and cargo shorts as period and modern dress mixed together.

One choice the production made that I really enjoyed and that used the limitations of the space to great effect was to have the representative of the town of Angiers only appear on the steps where the audience is sitting. With this set-up, when the First Citizen announces that his town will not acknowledge a king until John and Arthur have battled it out for themselves, it puts the audience in the position of the people of Angiers, eagerly awaiting the outcome of the war and intrigue and causing us to become much more invested in the outcome.

Though the First Citizen's megaphone and ladder were rather awkward, as was the stylized but still rather messy fighting during the final battle scene, making those Shakespearean scenes work on stage has always been difficult. What is more important in this play are the actions of individuals, from Prince Louis of France's fateful decision to fight for Angiers himself to the British earls' defection after Arthur's disappearance. In a play that is not really about the royalty but rather the people whose lives are intimately tied to them, King John brought life and investment to an otherwise convoluted story.

It may not be the best outdoor Shakespeare you can find in the city, but if you want a well done show that you can bring your dog to and wander in and out at will, Hudson Warehouse is the place to be. King John plays for one more weekend, followed by The Importance of Being Earnest in July and The Winter's Tale in August, all at Riverside Park. For more information, check out their website.

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