Voices Found Repertory performs at The Underground Collective, a surprisingly nice space in the basement of the Grand Avenue Plankinton Building, that includes a theater, recording studio, and other art spaces.
As the play opens, John (Brandon Judah) is King of England following the death of his brother Richard I (the Lionheart). His position is contested by Constance (Brittany Ann Meister), widow of John’s other elder brother, Geoffrey, who predeceased Richard but left a legitimate son, young Arthur (Graham Billings). Constance has leagued with King Phillip of France (Kira Renkas), promising him English-held lands in France if he helps win the English throne for Arthur.
Aided by his mother, the still-formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine (Claire Tidwell), John steals a march on the French, and meets them in arms at Angiers, a fortified town that is reluctant to let either force within its walls. (It’s interesting that Eleanor would seem to be so supportive of John, but this performance makes it clear that there is no love between Constance and Eleanor--. Eleanor shows more favor to a presumed bastard son of her beloved Richard, “Philip Faulconbridge” (Jeremy Labelle), whom she takes as a protégé, than for her grandson Arthur).
John and Eleanor broker a masterful deal, offering the Dauphin, Louis, (Brandon Haut), the hand of Blanche of Castile (Rachel Zembrowski) in marriage. (Historically, Blanche was the daughter of John’s sister, Eleanor of England, and Alfonso VIII, King of Castile). The marriage ceded some fiefdoms to Louis, and gave him a claim on the English throne after John. Arthur is thrown a bone in the form of being confirmed Duke of Brittany, his father’s title. Although Constance rages, she is stymied.
In the play (Shakespeare compresses considerable time), things fall apart upon the arrival of Cardinal Pandulph (Sarah Zapian), emissary of Pope Innocent III, who excommunicates John for having refused to recognize the Pope’s appointee to the Archbishopric of Canterbury, and requires the French to make war on him. Phillip is angered, but has to comply. (Historically, Phillip had felt the pain of being under Pope Innocent’s interdict over his attempt to set aside his marriage to Isambour of Denmark--.) The situation degenerates into a general battle, in which Arthur is captured by John’s forces.
John finds himself under pressure from both within and without, by the French and by English partisans of young Arthur. John gives orders to Hubert, Earl of Kent (Nick Hurtgen) to put Arthur to a particularly cruel death, which orders Hubert cannot bring himself to carry out. Nevertheless, rumors fly that John has killed Arthur, inspiring rebellion. Hubert returns to Rouen to produce Arthur, only to find that he has killed himself by leaping from the castle battlements. (Historically, no one knows what really became of Arthur after his incarceration at Rouen, and it is assumed John did away with him--.)
With Arthur’s death blamed on John, rebellious English join the Dauphin in an attempt to unseat John. John having perforce made his peace with the Pope, Pandulph attempts to decree peace, only to face the Dauphin’s vehement refusal.
In the battles that follow, John is demoralized by the death of his mother, and is roughly handled by the French and allies. In the heat of battle, he accepts a drink from a mysterious “monk”, which proves to have been poisoned. (John is actually thought to have died of dysentery contracted while on campaign, so a ‘poisoned drink’ may be not far from the truth—more so than the famous “surfeit of lampreys” story--.) John has a slow and agonizing death. Supporters of John’s son, Henry III, personified by Blanche, arrange for his succession.
This was a very enjoyable play. Done in modern dress, with little in the way of makeup or props, it relied on the considerable skill and energy of the cast to put the play across, which succeeded admirably. We particularly liked the convention of portraying the battle scenes as general brawls in which everyone, even Eleanor and Constance, took part. Although the production notes make explicit comparisons between the petty, spiteful, and cruel John and a certain American President, there’s little attempt to portray that in the performance (John doesn’t even wear a red tie--.). The director and cast wisely let us draw parallels where we may.
The major cast members have significant resumes in Shakespeare and other drama, and it shows. Brandon Judah had a fine range of expression as the sometimes charming, sometimes craven, and usually scheming King. Kira Renkas as King Philip effectively goes from smiling good humor when the wind is in France’s favor, to frustrated rage when the Church upsets plans. Actually, the play is full of good rants: John, Philip, Constance, Faulconbridge, and the Dauphin all have their unbridled scenes. In particular, Jeremy Labelle as Faulconbridge, a.k.a. Richard Plantagenet, a.k.a. “The Bastard” made the welkins ring, sometimes a bit too loudly, while taking pleasure in stirring up trouble.