Review: The Life and Death of King John

New York Shakespeare Exchange casts light on Shakespeare's dark history play.

  • Photograph: Daniel Winters

    The Life and Death of King John

  • Photograph: Daniel Winters

    The Life and Death of King John

  • Photograph: Daniel Winters

    The Life and Death of King John

  • Photograph: Daniel Winters

    The Life and Death of King John

  • Photograph: Daniel Winters

    The Life and Death of King John

Photograph: Daniel Winters

The Life and Death of King John

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

One of my happiest surprises at the theater in recent memory is The Life and Death of King John, the extraordinary inaugural production of a troupe called New York Shakespeare Exchange. I went to see the play, I must confess, with trepidation in my heart; my principal motive was to see this rarely produced history onstage for the first time. But King John, adapted and directed by Ross Williams, does much more than fill a blank spot on a Shakespeare completist's checklist. Boldly illuminating the obscurities of the text—the play is a litany of intra-aristocratic squabbles about royal succession at the turn of the 13th century—Williams has fashioned a lucid, red-blooded and engaging account of loyalty, luck and medieval realpolitik.

Simply put, King John is one of the finest Off-Off Broadway Shakespeare productions I have ever seen. Vince Gatton is superb as the dastardly title character, who suggests Richard III without the devilish charm. A sniveling, snobbish mama's boy who has usurped the crown from his hapless little nephew, John soon finds himself in a three-front war against the French, the Church and his own revolting lords; his dramatic counterweight is Robert Faulconbridge, an illegitimate but heroic nobleman played with blithe merry-warrior buoyancy by the impressive Chris Bresky. Other memorable turns come from Leigh Williams as John's sister-in-law, wild with grief at the capture of her son; Christopher Michael McFarland as the boy's conscience-stricken jailor; Kevin Brewer as a wily papal legate; and Chris Thorn as the conflicted king of France. But the entire cast, sprawled across G. Warren Stiles's clever modern set, is commendably clear in both speech and action. (Dynamic battle sequences incorporate such makeshift weapons as pepper spray, an ice mallet and a letter opener.) New York Shakespeare Exchange has made its entrance in grand style. This young company is not just promising: It's delivering.

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Access Theatre. By William Shakespeare. Dir. Ross Williams. With Vince Gatton, Chris Bresky. 2hrs 30mins. One intermission. See complete event information