upstart crow collective’s Inventive ‘King John’ Illuminates the Treachery, Costs and Loss of War
“Three corners of the world in arms,” a phrase at the end of Williams Shakespeare’s “King John” aptly applies to our current reality and marks a timely production from upstart crow collective, a troupe founded in Seattle, running at Actors Theatre of Louisville through Nov. 19. While war rages in the Middle East, Sudan and Ukraine, they are just among the nearly 30 conflict areas across the globe.
Kate Wisniewski (left) as King John and Vilma Silva (right) as King Philip in upstart crow collective’s production of “King John” at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Photo by Audrey Cecil. Courtesy of Actors Theatre of Louisville.
This cast and crew deeply mine the bard’s rarely performed piece with a cast devoid of men, few props and limited set pieces to serve up raw egos, cunning alliances and devastating grief that ensues. All unfold through power struggles when the French challenge the right of King John (Kate Wisniewski) to his crown as they maintain the rightful heir is his nephew, Arthur (Brenda Joyner), the son of the king’s deceased elder brother. In defending his power, King John and his mother the queen (Carmen Roman) resolve to fight and enlist Philip, the bastard, (Rami Margron) in the campaign.
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Adapted and directed by one of the company’s founding members, Rosa Joshi, “King John” storms the stage with powerful but never exaggerated performances that show characters driven by distinctly different motives, some grasping at straws for moral reasoning. While the king and others are driven by power and determination, some are motivated by a desire to be a part of something bigger or to please others. There are a few who desire and strive for a peaceful life.
At the center, Wisniewski’s King John wears an even yet stern expression. He is prepared to project power, ready to give directions or retort to an unappealing proposition. This king is unyielding — yet there is always a sense of instability and tension beneath the surface of his leadership. This king, who holds his mother close by as he makes his decisions, harbors insecurity. Wisniewski steadily balances all these facets.
Rami Margron (left) as Philip, the bastard, and Deanalís Resto (right) as the Duke of Austria in upstart crow collective’s production of “King John” at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Photo by Audrey Cecil. Courtesy of Actors Theatre of Louisville.
Margron’s the bastard, Philip, has the ear of the audience, giving asides and insights. He is thrust into a circle of power to give him a clearer view of what transpires as he questions and comments. Learning the ways of international negotiation and balance of powers, he sometimes becomes annoyed. Margron gives the bastard a pure edge of frustration in his “Mad world, mad kings, mad composition!” speech that comes when the king makes concessions of land. The bastard is working to understand the leader he and others are following.
The casting of Wisniewski, Margron and others onstage stems from the company’s mission to produce and re-imagine classical plays with racially diverse casts of women and non-binary people. That mission is never at odds with the ability of “King John” to deliver. The production upholds the emotional weight of the story and its characters while mixing them well with their own qualities.
Moreover, the strength of those performances is matched by the arresting stagecraft of the fight and battle scenes created by scenic designer Se Hyun Oh and projection designer Hana Sooyeon Kim, lighting designer Geoff Korf with fight choreographer Carla Pantoja and movement director Alice Gosti. These scenes often play out over projection on the floor of boxes, sometimes resembling a chessboard or checkerboard, and filled with images — sometimes abstract and other times distinct. Those images range from fighters in combat to detonating bombs to graphics of visual static or white noise, the kind of snow-like imagery found in analog video and television. These images flicker, swell and shrink with the ebb and flow of the action. And frequently Palmer Hefferan’s sharp yet haunting sound design compliments these moments. In these scenes, the actors interact fully with these spaces and the lighting therein gives the scenes a feeling of “Game of Thrones” meets “The Matrix.”
The work of scenic designer Se Hyun Oh, projection designer Hana Sooyeon Kim, lighting designer Geoff Korf, fight choreographer Carla Pantoja and movement director Rocia Mendez work together to create stunning tableaus of war in upstart crow collective’s production of “King John” at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Photo by Audrey Cecil. Courtesy of Actors Theatre of Louisville.
The lack of any other set pieces, save for a few simple chairs that act as thrones, doesn’t deduct any richness from this production. In addition to the lighting and the projection, opulent costume designs by Melissa Torchia adorn these characters in distinct lush suits and an array of draping capes that help signify their societal rank and echo the idea of traditional Elizabethan costuming for Shakespearian productions. Each character’s specific look resonates with each actor’s portrayal.
Besides a stunning production, this telling leaves us with a frustrating story paired with grief as death comes to so many and we see that war yields very little for the high personal prices it extorts. So, it makes sense that company members refer to Shakespeare’s plays of this kind as political war plays rather than categorize them among the customary history plays as most do. This company’s firm handle of “King John” is not a surprise given it was the first play it produced after it formed in 2004 and that it has since staged several productions, including last year at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
These recent productions, sadly, make sense. This history is still with us — and was before the latest outburst of violence in Israel and Gaza. A study released in July stated that the peace has deteriorated globally for the ninth year in a row with deaths from conflict increasing by 96%.
“King John” by William Shakespeare. A production of upstart crow collective
Through Nov. 19
Actors Theatre of Louisville, Bingham Theatre
316 W. Main Street
For more information: www.actorstheatre.org
Note: A previous version named Rocio Mendez as the movement director. Mendez is the intimacy director and Alice Gosti is the movement director. The current version has been corrected to reflect Gosti’s role in the production.