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The Battles of King John


Gabor Csanyi -- The Tech

King John

MIT Shakespeare Ensemble Major Production

Directed by Tina Packer, Shakespeare and Company

La Sala de Puerto Rico

March 2022 at 8 p.m.

Starring Damon W. Suden '99, Mitali Dhar '99, Fernando J. Paiz '98, Kevin D.

Dahm G, Robert J. Pensalfini G, and Young E. Kim '98

By Teresa Huang
Staff Reporter

The Shakespeare Ensemble's production of King John, one of Shakespeare's lesser known plays, is a fiery blend of angst-ridden characters and sword fights surrounding the continuing struggle for power following Henry VIII. Under the direction of Tina Packer, artistic director of the prestigious drama troupe Shakespeare and Company, the Shakespeare Ensemble presents a powerful production of this chapter in Shakespeare's historical drama.

King John (Damon W. Suden '99) assumes the throne of England, backed by his mother Elinor of Aquitaine (Mitali Dhar '99), after the death of Richard the Lionheart, only to hear that Philip (Kevin D. Dahm G), the King of France, is preparing to back Arthur (Portia L. Vescio '96), nephew of the king, in claiming the throne as well. King John, with his mother and niece, Blanche of Spain (Elizabeth A. Stoehr G), travel to France to oppose this decision. He is accompanied by Philip Faulconbridge, knight and bastard son to Richard the Lionheart.

The English and the French meet outside the town of Angiers, whose citizens refuse to open their gates until they know who is the rightful king. After a bloody battle is fought, the women of Angiers propose a compromise: let Blanche of Spain marry Lewis the Dauphin (Dylan J. McConaghy '00), son of the king of France. The two kings agree and all seems well until the ominous figure Pandulph, Cardinal of Milan, steps in and the drama continues.

Packer, a visiting scholar in music and theater arts, admitted that at first, King John seemed a play without themes, but after working with the talented cast and crew, Shakespeare's themes emerged of their own accord. "I didn't start out with an idea of what it was about," she said, "but it started becoming clear as we were doing it. I don't like to conceptualize very much before I begin. I feel that dramatic action throws up its own story, and if you conceptualize too much, if you're just reading the play, you've usually got it wrong." One of Shakespeare's themes deals with the appearance of several devoted mother characters, from Elinor of Aquitaine, who guides and advises her son King John, to Constance (Jenny James Buhr '97), mother to Arthur, whom she clings to as her last remembrance of her late husband. The other theme that becomes apparent is the issue of children getting caught up in an adult game of war, and how the parents manipulate and justify war through their children. The sins of the mothers and fathers find their consequence in following generations.

King John is abundant with powerful and skilled performances. The people of England display fervent disdain for the people of France, and the animosity between the opposing sides explodes on stage in the frighteningly authentic sword battles, cacophonous and complete with real solid metal swords. Strong performances are turned out by Buhr as Constance, whose wailing lamenting over the kidnapping of her son Arthur leads to her demise and Robert J. Pensalfini G as the honorable gentleman Hubert. Also excellent are Suden as the ill-fated King John, Stoehr and Dylan J. McConaghy '00 as the couple torn apart by war, and the arrogant illegitimate son of Richard the Lionheart, Philip the Bastard, played with terrific haughtiness by Fernando J. Paiz '98.

Despite the grave story line, Shakespeare and the Shakespeare Ensemble find time to add some dimension of humor to the story, mostly embodied by Philip the Bastard. Most ingenious was the transformation of the men of Angiers to a set of homemaking, bathrobe-clad women of Angiers, a creative juxtaposition to the seriousness of the conflict between England and France. Packer explained the modification, "It seemed to me that that was more interesting. I had women playing men. I didn't see why I shouldn't have men playing women."

The stage set for King John is simple, yet foreboding and utilized in a precise manner. The action seldom took place on the higher level stage, though when it did, it was usually one of the dramatic highlights of the play. Another highlight of the production is the original music written by Eddie Kohler G, which is dark yet not overbearing and provides an excellent background to the performance.

The Shakespeare Ensemble's production of King John is a professional telling of the constant struggle between nations and with the church. Its success lies in its knowledgeable presentation and emotionally charged action. The actors flourish under the direction of Packer from Shakespeare and Company, who says she enjoyed the experience as well. "They're extremely clever, bright students, and their interest range is enormous - it's terrific. I guess because their life is so intellectual and my life is so visceral, it's a good combination. It makes life real interesting." Filled with accomplished performances and great drama, the lesser-known King John makes itself known.