Every era finds the Shakespeare that suits it best. So it's not surprising that "King John" is staged more often in our cynical times than before.
It's a history play that refuses to present history in a clear narrative line, a study of executive morality that offers a clear-eyed view of the flawed executive who gives it its title but not its moral center, and a war story about a war that no one seems to deserve to win. What more could a 2008 audience want?
At least that seems to be the thinking behind Benjamin Evett's coolly modern staging for Actors' Shakespeare Project, which uses the basement of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul as a kind of medieval sound stage. In sharp suits and dark sunglasses, King John and his courtiers, as well as his rivals, wield all the weaponry of a modern political campaign: not swords and lances, but laptops, microphones, and videocams.
Evett wisely doesn't push the modern metaphors to extremes, nor does he make them too literal. So this "King John" plays not as an indictment of a specific US administration (the current one would seem a natural) but as a more impressionistic evocation of the ways in which powerful people behind the scenes make things happen with the wave of a hand - or, OK, of a tiny tape recorder.
In his program notes, Evett argues that we shouldn't worry too much about the plot, which is convoluted and sometimes confusing, but should instead focus on the atmosphere of shifting alliances and sudden betrayals. He's right to identify those themes, but the emphasis on evoking a strong mood rather than clarifying the action or delineating character sometimes weakens the play's emotional and intellectual power. This is more an interesting meditation on "King John" than a persuasive realization of the play itself.
But it is often very interesting indeed, particularly when Bill Barclay is onstage. His character, the illegitimate son of Richard the Lion-Hearted whose original name is Falconbridge but who's often referred to, as here, simply as the Bastard, is a fascinating example of a relatively minor player who apparently takes over the playwright's imagination and, by extension, our own attention. Complicated, bold, and charismatic, the Bastard is far more compelling than his uncle King John, and Barclay gives him all the energy and wit he needs to steal every scene he's in.
So it's not entirely Michael Forden Walker's fault that John seems leaden and slow-footed by comparison. Shakespeare hasn't given him as fully rounded a character to work with; this king is too fickle and even ignoble to be a hero, but he's not vividly evil enough to be a fascinating villain, either. It doesn't help, though, that Walker chooses to deliver John's speeches with a relentlessly plodding and graceless rhythm. That may make sense as a characterization, but at too great a cost to the sense of the lines.
Jennie Israel's Constance, too, seems too monochromatic in her rage. Constance, the mother of Arthur, the young nephew from whom John has taken the throne, is a pivotal character, both in the conflict that leads to war when France takes up her son's cause and in the play's emotional effect, particularly in the great speech of grief that Shakespeare gives her after tragedy strikes. But here she seems merely a furious scold, histrionic rather than heartbreaking, and the single high pitch of her portrayal diminishes her hold on us.
More successful is Janet Morrison's cold, cruel social X-ray rendering of Queen Eleanor, John's manipulative and power-hungry mother. Joel Colodner, too, finds the right blend of political acumen and flawed humanity as the French King Philip, and Maurice Emmanuel Parent gives the French Dauphin, Louis, an appropriate fire. Sarah Newhouse has both a brief and amusing turn as the Bastard's wayward mother and a longer heartbreaking one as the jailer who's ordered to kill young Arthur.
John Kuntz, meanwhile, all but twirls his invisible mustaches as the wily cleric, Pandulph. His suave villainy is often amusing but almost as often feels a bit over the top - especially when the Father Guido Sarducci accent, just one of several heavy-handed dialects imposed on various characters, gets a little too strong.
On the whole, however, this is a striking and mostly effective "King John." It may not be one for the ages, but it's one for our times.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.