Ne’er so bethump’d with words has this critic found herself when staring down an amalgamation of a Shakespearean remount dipped in Pythonian humor and sprayed liberally with truncation across the Greenbelt Arts Center’s intimate black box stage, than she has in this very moment in attempting to report upon The Life and Death of King John as presented by The Rude Mechanicals. A history most boring upended ass over tea-kettle by Director Alan Duda, the scarcely produced King John, is Shakespeare’s forgotten history— the one that everyone leaves behind and with good reason. In a valiant, albeit misguided, effort the troupe lives up to their namesake in obliterating the Bard’s work in a fashion most foul and yet favorable of humors and wit. As it may be your only chance to experience King John in its “entirety” it is recommended for a viewing, and if nothing else, it’s short!
The production’s main issue at present stands on their shift of venue. Having previously enjoyed a brief 60-minute run of the show at the Capital Fringe Festival earlier this summer season, the troupe now finds themselves in the luxuriously spacious— by comparison— black box stage of the Greenbelt Arts Center. Owing to this sudden shift in location, the transitions of scenes and the show’s overall pacing is somewhat lacking, but with time spent in the new space the performance will catch up to what it is meant to be. The show’s other noteworthy fault is the conflagration of confused and half-baked concepts that are sprinkled maniacally throughout. This both enhances and hinders the viewing experience of the performance depending on familiar you are with Pythonian humor, the text itself, and the inner workings of the director’s mind.
Director Alan Duda sets a bar to challenge Olympus as far as executing the production on the whole. The Pythonian humor is there, albeit glossed and rushed through at times, but lacks the essential understanding of comic timing that is specific to Python jokes on the whole. Treating the history, which can be quite heavy-handed and droll at the best of times, as a farcical parody along the lines of Python, is a brilliant concept but requires further polish in the execution to live up to its full potential. Further straddling the line of ‘brilliant idea vs poor execution’ is the overall exaggerated tone of the comic gags worked into the show. Fourth-wall annihilation and pandemonium is appreciated— like Melissa Schick’s “I need to speak with my agent” shtick— but is often not taken far enough and feels contrived after a while. Pushing the envelope further where the melodramatic slapstick and baser humors are concerned would serve the production better on the whole as at present the humor rests a bit listlessly in limbo needing a gigantic foot to kick it along.
To Duda’s credit, his casting choices serve the show well with each in their comical comfort zone. This again toes the line of genius grappling with follow-through as the right people are there with the right lines, attitudes, accents, affectations, and physicalities, but require a bit harder of a push from the directorial effort on the whole. The deconstructive bashing of the show’s ending— in a pure pisstake at the rules of the Capital Fringe Festival— is a bit much, but hysterical just the same, even if it only speaks to those who have attended CFF in the past.
Costuming and Sound Design fall to the capable hands of Moira Parham and Eric Honour respectively. Parham dances a merry flirtation with pieces that truly accent the absurdity of the production’s overall tone while still finding a foothold, albeit a loose one, in Shakespeare’s history. Parham’s ability to make the costumes have an intentionally poor-qualitied nature is a direct mockery of the show’s parody nature and reflects well the intents of the director. All hail and praises fall to Honour and his revolting sound design that echoes soundly with the influences of crass toilet humor. The war-chant and chaos-inducing soundscape that underscores the numerous chase sense is remarkably inspirational and ignites a sense of war and impending doom in the audience’s ears.
Like most presentations of The Bard through The Rudes, there is a severe truncation of the innumerable acts that Willy S set forth in his text. This production is no exception and even includes character combinations in a mode most humorous as Duda combines the Earls of Essex, Pembroke, and Salisbury into one three-headed entity (wherein the central head is later replaced by the too precious and way-too-cute-for-this-show ‘Sir Not Appearing’— played by Stephen Duda.) Joe Kubiski, Carol Calhoun, and (at this production) Lisa Hill-Corley fill out the heads of the aforementioned creature and do so with comic nuance adjusted accordingly to make the gag read cleanly.
Duda himself appears in the performance briefly, paying mock-tribute to “The Historian” so infamously noted from Python’s Holy Grail (or Spamalot for those of you that only speak Musical-Theatre-Python— a recently appropriated derivative dialect descended from God on high’s oh-holy-foot.) He, like other minor cameo type characters— including the sprightly and adorable Will Robey as Robert Faulconbridge, and Carol Calhoun as the pious and presumptuous Pope Cardinal of some-place-or-other, find little moments to have their presences felt, and remembered. With Calhoun it’s her fusty and holy nature, with Roby it’s his charming and dim-witted smile, and with Duda there’s a blood-gag involved.
Lady Constance (Sam David) lives up to her namesake by delivering constant shrill shrieks frightening enough to shatter the eardrums. Her tantrums explode exponentially building her a character that easily dwarves her naturally diminutive figure. David vascillates between a Delores Umbridge sort— simpering and sickeningly phony in the sweetness department to a raging bull of bitch in no time flat. This pairs well against her simpleton son, Prince Arthur (Holly Trout) who has a sunny but vague disposition permanently etched across his features. Trout is a miniature scene stealer, ever with a finger up her nose, and the perfect blank, albeit frightening, smile and stare plastered over her face. Both Trout and David have moments of grabbing the audience’s attention for laughs that resound quite naturally, Trout’s when her character decides to take a chance with the window, and David when she’s playing some sort of cloaked and hooded henchman hopping about in the rope.
Hang a calfskin on Joshua Engel’s recreant limbs, because— well he said so. As Philip the Bastard Engel takes every opportunity to cheat to the audience, ham up his limited dialogue, and brutalize the intention of his placement on the stage. This fits well within the context of the show’s overall purpose and works exceedingly well against the Duke of Austria’s (Peter Eichman) Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonation. Eichman is bold and brash and bucks head well with Engel. Hell, hang a calfskin on them both. Whatever that means.
Scene stealer Paul Brinkley has a masterful handle on the Pythonian sense of humor that has been sprayed liberally through this production. His outrageous accent— French or otherwise— builds his character in earnest when he starts out as the tower guard. It’s his mincing finger traps across the turret that catches the eye and glues the focus to him. As Hubert of Angiers there is something rotten in his physicality and his moping voice that truly speaks to this bastardized rendition of Shakespeare at its baser form. The same can be said for Lord Chatillon (Erin MacDonald.) Her blistering blasé approach to the jilted French MessaJester is comic gold and works its effect brilliantly throughout. MacDonald’s presence is most keenly felt when joining the ranks of ‘Bring-Out-Your-Dead’ and during the “commodity” sketch— one of the only repetitive nonsensical bits that garners the laughter it is designed to receive.
Playing the Blanche of Castile with a Patty Simcox accented lisp and a winsomely spirited disposition, Melanie Jester is the perfect complement to the outrageous Lewis the Dauphin, played by Tim MacGroin (who suspiciously resembles company member Jaki Demarest.) MacGroin’s hysterical approach to the character, which is strangely reminiscent to the melodramatic theatrics for which Demarest is known for, makes The Dauphin a central focus of fun and hysterics throughout the performance. A great deal of chest thrust up-and-back, again a hallmark of a Demarest performance, is delivered throughout The Dauph’s lamentations, but ultimately it’s the overly affected “spitooey” delivery that nails the character with comedic perfection. Incidentally, MacGroin is the only performer onstage who receives the penis-stick and uses it naturally, finding the humor of its innuendo without feeling contrived— a fact that Demarest would take bold pride in.
The title character, much like in Caesar, is not the focus of the show, as poor Evan Ockershausen learns. A great and mild instigator, Ockershausen is more of an orchestrator of events, a collaborator of characters, and an overseer of things in this production. Channeling that Matt Smith childish excitement with a little 11th Doctor ingenuity he makes the character pop and explode— particularly during his crude and unusual final monologue. The thunder of the show is spirited away on the roguish French back of Mikki Berry lording her way through the performance as Philip of France. With a ferociously hysterical approach to the character, there’s nary a moment where eyes, ears— and if we could reach, hands and tongues— aren’t on her and her insanely entertaining French gilded accent. Blazing and boisterously humorous in her deadpan sarcastic approach, Barry owns the show, rivaling only the enigmatically engaging MacGroin in performance on the stage.
There are as many reasons to not see the show as there are to see the show, but owing to the hard work of the show’s performers, the likelihood that even in its truncated and misconstrued state this will be the only opportunity for a live theatrical viewing of King John in the foreseeable future, and the evening of mindless entertainment that ensues, this word-bethump’d critic recommends giving them a shot down in ye old Greenbelt.
Running Time: Approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes with one intermission
The Life and Death of King John plays through September 5, 2015 with The Rude Mechanicals at the Greenbelt Arts Center— 123 Centerway in historic Greenbelt MD. For tickets call the box office at (301) 441-8770 or purchase them online.