King John

By William Shakespeare

Review by Keith Waits

Entire contents copyright © 2014 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

To take one of Shakespeare’s history plays and strip it down to 5 actors with no set, props or costumes and a run time of 90 minutes is audacious, to say the least. Such experiments have certainly been accomplished before, but usually with the more iconic plays such as Romeo and Juliet or Julius Caesar. It is easier to take shortcuts when your audience is already familiar with the story. But it is a questionable approach to a history, most of which tend to be overburdened with plot and incidental detail, and King John being one of the least often produced of Shakespeare’s plays begs the question of whether the audience will be familiar enough with the plot to follow such an abbreviated version.

King John’s plot involves challenges to the King’s authority, land squabbles, religious conflict with the Pope, and war with France, which sounds like a veritable catalog of familiar elements from the Bard’s better known plays. It makes for a complicated enough scenario that, arguably, lacks the clarity of Shakespeare’s best writing.

The Alley gives it a noble try with this production, molded by the five actors, with no credit for the adaptation or a director. Things get off to a good start, with the language given a straightforward delivery in the early scenes, and the minimalism forcing attention to character as intended. But the good effort does not sustain. The plot becomes muddled and difficult to follow and the meaning of individual characters becomes elusive.  Most of the cast portray multiple characters, not at all an unusual feature in Shakespeare productions, but there are several moments of awkward transition, such as when an actor is in one instant a corpse, then abruptly springs up to essay another character, and then returns to the stage after an exit to again occupy his previous position as a corpse. I have seen such maneuvers made to work before, but here it proved mostly distracting and made me wish for one or two more actors to round out the ensemble.

The five we do find onstage are clearly working very hard, and I appreciated the shift from easy authority to defeat in Frank Whitaker’s title role, and Kimby Taylor-Peterson’s consistency of characterization within her five roles. Dennis Grinar brought overwhelming energy to his five characters, and Sterling Pratt set himself apart by underplaying and focusing on the language. I remember Chesley Sommer from a previous Alley production and I have to say that he makes a much stronger impression here and shows such marked improvement it was striking to see. Yet it must also be noted that there were variances in accent and dips in energy in the performances that betray a missing, extra measure of discipline that might perhaps be explained by the lack of a formal director.

King John is the first new company production since The Alley Theater relocated to Main Street. The 49-seat space is deep as it is wide yet intimate and inviting. There was some echo for the voices, although all were heard loud and clear. Aside from the inability to reposition the seating, it is very much like a black box space.

King John

March 20-23, 2014

The Alley Theater
633 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202