LENOX -- Far less familiar than Shakespeare's other histories, ''King John" fills Shakespeare & Company's Founders' Theatre with dizzying political maneuverings, sharply drawn characters, and heartbreaking insight into the costs of senseless war.
Artistic director Tina Packer, who directs ''King John" with vigorous grace, has said she doesn't understand why the play isn't staged more often. Her production, rich in humor, nuance, and intelligent ambiguity, certainly backs up her argument for its virtues. And the fine cast, led by Allyn Burrows as the titular king and Peter Macon as the Bastard Faulconbridge (the play's true center), brings the tumultuous relationships -- both personal and political -- to vivid life.
Still, there are reasons for the play's obscurity. The split focus between King John and the Bastard, for one, has made audiences unsure where to direct their attention. It doesn't help that John isn't utterly a villain nor Faulconbridge utterly a hero, so there's no simple story of evil vanquished and good rewarded. More troubling, even those who treasure complexity may feel let down by the ending, which offers neither a blaze of glory nor a gory bloodbath but instead a poisoning-ex-machina and, offstage, the signing of the Magna Carta. OK, so the last act needs work.
Let's face it, though: Flawed Shakespeare is still Shakespeare, and Packer does everything but call in a script doctor to make that ending fly. She has woven faceless, menacing monks throughout, so the news that one of them has poisoned the king comes as less of a surprise than it might. And Daniel Kotlowitz's subtle lighting, always effective -- bathing Edward Check's chessboard set in blood red for battle, deep shadows for dark deeds -- here creates a leafy, pastoral orchard that grounds John's death, his son's succession, and Faulconbridge's quiet acquiescence to it all in a helpfully believable reality.
As for the story, you'd be wise to read the play before seeing it, because it's hard to tell the players without a score card. But Packer and her cast do a terrific job of creating richly individual characters, aided by Arthur Oliver's elegantly color-coded costumes: red for the English, blue for the French, and red and blue, quartered, for the young English prince, Arthur, whose right to the throne is supported by the French and so becomes the cause of war.
Burrows contributes his usual finely tuned ear and voice; he also gives us a childish, silly John who, frighteningly, wields deadly power. (Any parallels to current political figures are intentional; note how the beleaguered people of Angiers, pawns to John's machinations, wear costumes evoking traditional Afghan dress.) Macon's Faulconbridge, meanwhile, is wild and brash and funny; as he must, Faulconbridge steals the show.
In supporting roles, Mel Cobb stands out as the blandly cynical Cardinal Pandulph, Kenajuan Bentley as the compassionate Hubert, and Annette Miller as Queen Gloria Swanson -- excuse me, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, but her self-dramatizing Hollywood glamour feels just right for John's scheming, power-mad mother. As Constance, Barbara Sims pitches the great speech of mourning for her child too high; she would find greater power in greater simplicity. Still, her intensity is affecting, and her performance, coupled with Miller's, places a fascinating emphasis on the play's exploration of the complex relationships between mothers and their sons.
Hmm -- a history play in which the women play important roles? Maybe the obscurity of ''King John" isn't a total mystery after all.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.