Stage Review: 'Fixing King John' strips away too much of the Bard

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Who says "King John" needs fixing?

In fact, who even knows "King John"? It certainly dukes it out with "Henry VIII" for least known and least performed of Shakespeare's 10 English history plays, and it's one of his least known overall.

'Fixing King John'

Where: No Name Players at Off the Wall Theater, 25 W. Main St., Carnegie.

When: Through Aug. 2; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and Monday.

Tickets: $15 at; $20 at the door.

But of those who do know it, many would agree that it's one of the lumpiest, with memorable characters, scenes, speeches and themes, but much that falls flat and is, at the least, confusing.

So into the breach rush the intrepid Rude Mechanicals of Austin, Texas -- better known as the Rude Mechs -- an inventive collaborative, champions of "devised" theater. ("Rude mechanicals" is a phrase used in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" to describe the working men who put on a play for the Duke.)

"Fixing King John," although it eventually evolved in group development, has a single author, Kirk Lynn, who set out to make Shakespeare's version "wild and new." He says in his program essay that he rewrote it in the language of today, adding lots of curse words, cutting it down to 10 characters and combining others, excising subplots and ignoring historical fact (as of course Shakespeare also did), all in the interest of "simply trying to tell a good story in rich language."

Mr. Lynn's text has been further adapted by the No Name Players director, Steven Wilson. For one example, he replaces "sword" with "hammer" -- both the words in the dialogue and the physical props -- turning a snarled royal squabble into a series of tussles on a construction site (set by Don DiGiulio). That's not a bad metaphor for dynastic wars; think of the BBC's version of the Wars of the Roses similarly staged.

Still, "fixing" is hardly the right word. Mr. Lynn, Rude Mechs and No Name have definitely not fixed that confusion. This version is harder to follow than "King John" itself, so it's best to relax and let it play with whatever vigor, comic absurdity, pathos or realpolitik it might contain.

There's lots of the latter, as everyone turns on everyone else in every possible contortion. But beyond the audacity of the project and the amusement of the general concept of royals as smutty-faced construction workers, the result is not very interesting.

Mr. Lynn strips out much that's engaging in Shakespeare -- the poetry, moral dilemmas and plausible struggles between public and personal -- leaving only the least interesting part, a sketch of the plot.

Just to orient you, without trying to summarize a plot that is confusing in Shakespeare and even more confusing here, King John is the supposedly bad king you remember from the Robin Hood and Ivanhoe stories (unfortunately, neither appears). The royal succession is much in play, which involves the French royal family and the ever-Machiavellian church.

The most vital figure in Shakespeare is The Bastard, supposedly Richard the Lionhearted's illegitimate son, actually Shakespeare's invented character. Here, he's lost his poetry and he's played by Jason Spider Matthews as sort of a stalwart lunkhead.

Matt Henderson plays "Arfur" (the young heir apparent) as a whiny kid with none of the pathos of Shakespeare.

Mike Mihm's naive, rough-cast but almost likable King John is as close as the play gets to a hero. Ricardo Vila-Roger's Bishop-Cardinal is a delicious opportunist, and Todd Betker's Pembroke stands in for all those barons who forced John to sign the Magna Carta (yes, he's that King John). The three women, Queen Elinor (Cary Anne Spear), Blanch (Hayley Nielsen) and Constance (Tressa Glover), are varieties of schemer and scold.

The slapdash Hatfield-and-McCoys mode is often funny, but why should we care about anyone?

Actually, there are two about whom I do care. One is King Philip, portrayed by Gregory Lehane (possible bias alert: Mr. Lehane directs the annual "Off the Record" spoof of Pittsburgh which I produce) as dithering and war-averse, a bit of a fool but stylish and plausible. The other is Shakespeare, who stays out of the way and lets Mr. Lynn and Mr. Wilson have their way.

My general rule is that you can do anything you want to the Bard, as long as the result justifies itself in its own terms. But after the initial fun of its audacity, I don't think this scrambled condensation does. To the extent it's Shakespeare, it's either for fans who collect every variant or for detractors who like to see him trashed.

Meanwhile, Mr. Lynn's "Fixing Timon of Athens" will get its first reading in Austin in November, to prepare it for a 2015 premiere ( Note also that there's another company called The Rude Mechanicals, based in Laurel, Md.,which also tackles Shakespeare.

Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.

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