The Bastard (Sean Cox, left) tries to talk some sense into King John (Tom Hall) before it's too late.
Tom Hall, who plays the lead role in Intrepid Shakespeare Company's current King John, probably shaves with an electric razor for safety's sake. One misstep with a blade, and the paramedics can expect a call from the nice lady over at 911. The veins in Hall's neck stick out so far they almost look like props; such is their absolutely impossible bloat when John is worried or mad. I swear Hall's walking around with a set of garden hoses for carotid arteries.
Guess water's thicker than blood after all.
This is to say that Hall is well-cast to type in this rarely done Shakespeare entry, as are the rest of the personnel—big fat stories of political intrigue are more user-friendly when everyone stubbornly looks their parts. And this is a big fat story of political intrigue, with a beleaguered John fighting to hold England's top job for the last decade of his life. He's offed by the last person you'd suspect, and although Bill is remiss in not filling out that character, he loads his play with enough back-story to satisfy the most discerning armchair detective. Intrepid's King John has a lot going for it (including superior turns by Sean Cox and Wendy Waddell) amid its not-so-implicit message—that where governments are concerned, internal flaps are just as debilitating as the prospect of foreign invasion.
John died in 1216, 10 years after France's King Philip demanded his abdication. Phil questions John's regal legitimacy, insisting John's young nephew Arthur (Austyn Myers) is the rightful leader (to add insult to injury, the Dauphin of France (Michael Salimitari) is married to John's niece). All the while, a smug, sullen John lands on his feet until he initiates his undoing—his opposition to a papal edict from Cardinal Pandulph (Waddell) that forbids war between the two nations. His excommunication is the latest in a series of back-door events that include Arthur's accidental death, a beheading, combat in the French city of Algiers, mass drownings at sea and a last-ditch suit for peace.
There's a lot going on, but co-directors Cox and Christy Yael are careful not to muddy these waters. Arthur's whine; the Dauphin's rigid posture; Pandulph's unforgiving glower; John's gigantic veins; assorted squints and bellows: The characters' persistent, stock features go a long way in holding our attention and trust as we take in the thick material. Cox (who, as Philip, the bastard son of Richard I, has his own set of closeted skeletons) excels in this context—his shit-eater's leer and jaunty gait are just what the playwright ordered, and his laments about England's future are solid indeed.
I owe my thanks to costumer Beth Merriman for making a case for Shakespeare in modern and semi-modern dress (she's the latest to make me rethink my curmudgeonly stance on its workability). By the same token, I enjoyed this show as a whole, and very much. As long as Intrepid stays the course, its claim to Shakespearean excellence will follow.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of May 15. King John runs in repertory with Intrepid's The Taming of the Shrew through June 6 at The Theatre Inc., 899 C St. Downtown. $10-$25. intrepidshakespeare.com.