This is part of Indy Bard Fest 2022, the annual Indianapolis area Shakespeare Festival. For information and tickets, visit indybardfest.com.
By John Lyle Belden
When most of us last saw or even thought of King John of England, he was still a Prince, frustrated with the antics of Robin Hood.
However, while Robin is legendary, there was a real John. Those taxes the Merry Men resented were a literal king’s ransom to rescue King Richard the Lionheart, his Crusading brother, and once John did ascend to the crown himself, his big achievement was getting badgered by the nobility to sign the Magna Carta. It didn’t help his reputation that he lost most of England’s lands in modern France, and that with historians he is overshadowed by one of the most awesome women of Medieval Europe, his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Can even William Shakespeare rehabilitate the image of this man? His “The Life and Death of King John” reads more like a complex cautionary tale with its twists of fate, as well as digs at the expense of France and the Catholic Church to keep Elizabethan audiences happy.
Now it is in the gentle hands of local director Doug Powers, who brings the Indy Bard Fest production of “King John” to The Shelton Auditorium at Butler University. His handling of the text brings out the humor in this history play, borne of the constant shifts between belligerence and brokered peace. The flow of the plot goes like: We’re at war! Now we’re not! We’re at war again! We’re… where were we…? There’s a dry, almost Pythonesque feel to some of the scenes, eliciting several chuckles from the audience.
Excellent casting helps: Zachary Stonerock gives John a sense of purpose, edged with frustration and notoriously quick temper. He strives to be a good ruler, while his mouth writes checks his army can’t cash. Gari Williams gives Queen Eleanor the regal bearing she held to her last days, her counsel helping keep John on task. Kevin Caraher portrays Philip of France as a monarch weary of war, but not relenting until his son Louis the Dauphin (Cael Savidge) and Duke Arthur (Max Gallagher), who has a claim to England’s throne, get their due. Star turns in supporting roles include Sabrina Duprey, who finds herself little more than a pawn in this game as Princess Blanche of Spain; Tony Armstrong as Hubert, a faithful servant with an impossible choice; and the brilliant Matt Anderson, first as a citizen of a besieged city who offers a crucial compromise, and later as Cardinal Pandulph, who acts with the Pope’s authority to excommunicate King John.
The top performances here are by Georgeanna Smith Wade in two fiery mother roles – most notably railing at all the politicking and half-measures keeping young Arthur from the throne – and by Taylor Cox as Philip “The Bastard” Faulconbridge, illegitimate son of John’s brother Richard, named a Knight in the King’s forces. Cox exudes a brash confidence that seems unearned at first, growing throughout as his role makes him both provocateur and chorus, giving many a sly aside or clever commentary to us watching.
Once again, Bard Fest has served up a Shakespeare work we don’t often see and makes it entertain and even enlightening when compared to the fickle nature of modern statecraft. Remaining performances are Friday through Sunday, Oct. 14-16 at the Shelton, 1000 W. 42nd Street, on the grounds Butler shares with Christian Theological Seminary.