The press release for Frog & Peach Theatre Company’s production of King John advertises the play as “Game of Thrones, Shakespeare style.” It’s a catchy descriptor and in some ways an accurate one. The plot of King John shares some similarities with Game of Thrones, as the play contains political intrigue, shifting alliances, swift changes in power, and many self-interested characters with only a handful of “good guys” to root for. Describing a production as “Game of Thrones, Shakespeare style” is a great marketing pitch to get public interest in a show.
However, this production of King John feels less like a production of Shakespeare’s text and more of an excuse to put on a stage version of Game of Thrones. Quick pacing is prioritized over letting the emotional moments of the play breathe. Costumes are designed to be attention-grabbing, particularly for the actresses, and the female characters are unnecessarily sexualized, put in tight dresses and leggings. (One even carries a riding whip for some reason.)
The portrayal of female characters in King John is the strongest indication of the production’s . Queen Elinor (Karen Lynn Gorney) is portrayed as the powerful, intelligent matriarch as she’s written to be in the play (though she’s described as “wily and seductive” in the press release), but the grieving Constance (Amy Frances Quint) vamps and flirts when trying to ascertain information about France’s new alliance with King John, while Lady Blanche of Spain (Ilaria Amadasi) is reimagined as a warrior princess sold into reluctant marriage with Louis of France – almost as if, to use another Game of Thrones comparison, the Stark sisters, Cersei, and Ygritte were combined into one character. Whether these directorial choices were made for sensationalist purposes or out of a misguided attempt to give the female characters more depth, they show a mistrust of the original text to hold the audience’s interest. Constance is a grieving widow and the mother of a boy whose rightful inheritance was stolen from him, and Blanche is a political pawn suddenly thrust into the middle of a war between two nations. Those motivations are enough to invite an audience’s sympathy, and the extra vamping, pouting, and indications of overt sexuality are superfluous and distracting, taking away from the more genuine moments later in the play.
Fortunately, some genuine moments do still ring true, most of them involving Hubert (Randy Howk), combining the political acumen and cunning thinking of a Lannister with the honor and nobility of a Stark. He agrees to kill young Arthur against his conscience, and the scene where he attempts to kill the boy is the highlight of the play. Howk’s Hubert shows a wide range of emotion throughout the scene, showing the character’s guilt, self-hatred, determination to fulfill his bloody deed, and almost parental love for the young boy. Hamish Carmichael as Arthur plays off of him well, showing a deep trust and affection for Hubert, increasing the tension and emotional weight of the scene.
Another strong performance is found in Eric Doss as King John himself, who gets his chance to shine once he makes a covert deal with Hubert to dispatch of the boy Arthur. Doss’s John is a petty, small man who laments and whines and lashes out at others when things don’t go his way. After receiving news of his mother’s death, he transforms into a little boy right before our eyes. This John is a deeply insecure man who has no business being king even if he were in the proper line of succession.
The scenes between Hubert and Arthur, and Hubert and John, are by far the strongest in the production. Not coincidentally, they are also the scenes where the director takes a step back from emphasizing the costumes and “sexy” political intrigue and lets the actors work with the text. (They are also two scenes where no one has to say the word dauphin, an unfortunate cast-wide mispronunciation.)
King John is not often produced – a shame, because the play is an ensemble’s dream come true, with a large number of strong, interesting characters. It is also only one of two Shakespeare plays written entirely in verse (the other being Richard II). Any company that decides to mount King John should be admired for producing such an interesting, underrated play and providing so many great acting opportunities to its cast. This production of King John gives its actors those opportunities but sometimes hinders them for the sake of an inconsistent vision.
King John is playing at the West End Theater at 263 W 86th Street from April 24-May 18 on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 PM and Sundays at 3 PM.