by William Shakespeare
Directed by Rosa Joshi
Upstart Crow Productions
Capitol Hill Arts Center

1621 12th Avenue
Seattle,WA 98122 (206)388-0569

Reviewed by Jerry Kraft

I was excited by the prospect of seeing Shakespeare's "King John", a rarely produced history play set in the 13th Century, performed by a company composed of many of the most accomplished actresses in Seattle, and directed by Rosa Joshi, an experienced classical director. Filled with ambitious and ruthless kings and partisans, both English and French, vying for advantage in a struggle over a dubious succession, these roles are meaty and assertive; they assay great conflicts of power and character and consequences of action. What additional depth and complexity would it add to have these strong men played by women, and what would it add to the richness of the drama to see themes of empowerment and intrigue given a subtext of the female experience?

Sadly, the answer is almost none. The cast plays with passion and focus, but little complexity or insight. Like so many productions of Shakespeare where men play the roles, they mistake intensity for depth, volume and emphasis for power, and sobriety for seriousness. Amy Thone gives us a King John without a trace of leavening humanity, and from the opening moments this is a man who shouts to overwhelm, acts without consideration of anything but personal advantage, wields power without satisfaction and has no pleasure in any part of his life. More importantly, she does not draw us into this condition. She does not make us care to understand what such a life means, or what it costs the man himself. Similarly, Gretchen Krich, who is a very strong actor, speaks the lines beautifully and powerfully, but adds little dimension or inner-life to the Earl of Salisbury's drama, and is not distinct enough as the French King Philip. The result becomes a kind of intoned proclamation for the production as a whole, and a verbal head-butting for the conflict between most of the characters. There was also a sameness about the performances that detracted from the variety and interest of the performance, and a general lack of rising action to build tension.

There were some roles that I especially liked, especially Ki Gottberg as Constance, the mother of the young boy, Arthur. She brought a vitality and immediacy to her performance that combined with real love and desire to make it quite affecting. I also liked Betsy Schwartz as the young Arthur who, faced with torture and mutilation, seemed genuine, vulnerable and sympathetic. Peggy Gannon brought a charming bravado and sense of arrogant style to her role as Philip the Bastard, and had a welcome illumination in otherwise dark and comfortless halls.

Jennifer Zeyl once again did a splendid set design, setting the action in a long hall, spectators on either side, a throne at either end, and all of it in harsh, stone-gray, save for the blood-stained squares that lined the floor, and the crudely-drawn blood-red lions behind the English throne. Costumes by Melanie Taylor Burgess emphasized the anonymous masculinity of men in power, and the lighting by Patti West was stark and inexpressive.

There is a wealth of talent working on this stage, but the production is undistinguished and ultimately rather boring. Rosa Joshi has directed her cast to clear and cogent delivery of the text, but the tone has too little texture, too little variety, too little insight. It becomes less an engaging historical drama than just history proclaimed by angry people driven by ambition and fear. Male or female, it isn't enough.

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