Shakespearean actors reign over ‘King John’ production

Say you and a friend want to play tennis. You have to coordinate together to figure out the logistics. When will you meet? At which court?

Then a third friend wants to play doubles, so you have to find a fourth, then coordinate everyone’s schedules to find a time and place that satisfies everybody. All that can be more exhausting than the game itself.

Now, imagine there are 17 players. And it’s not tennis, it’s Shakespeare.

The actors at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, on the campus of DeSales University near Allentown, have no director, no set designer, no costumer, and only four days to rehearse. PSF did little more than choose the play — the obscure “Life and Death of King John” — called up some actors, and gave them a deadline. The players had to figure out the rest on their own.

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“Part of our goal is to try to get a little closer to the energy an audience member might get in an Elizabethan playhouse,” said producing artistic director Patrick Mulcahy. “That doesn’t mean vegetables will be flying, but hopefully a little more of the crackling “now” in the air. Knowing there has been no rehearsal, and the actors work on their own–it’s live, and anything can happen.”

Last year, PSF staged “The Two Noble Kinsmen” in the same manner.

“King John,” a play about political vengeance and backstabbing, will not be staged exactly as it would have been when it was written more than 400 years ago — men will not be playing the women’s parts, for example, and the characters will not necessarily be wearing Elizabethan clothes. However, the theatrical modus operandi of the era was to throw together a play with little preparation, a bare stage, and no director. There is little room for radical revision.

“We’ve encouraged them not to concern themselves with unity of the concept, and focus on what we believe the Shakespearean actor would have concerned himself with — action, text, relationships, and mining this extraordinary language,” said Mulcahy.

A different sort of nervousness

Many of the actors have plenty of Shakespeare under their belt and know their way around the boards. Veteran stage actor Greg Wood said they could make creative decisions collaboratively because they respect each other’s ideas, and they do not have time to second-guess each other.

“When ‘King John’ was written, it was written as a real jingoistic, feel-good play for the British,” said Wood, who plays the title role. “They talk against the French and against the Austrians, and all that national-pride thing. Well, American audiences don’t know and don’t care; they shouldn’t be expected to.

“But, there is so much political manipulation going on — who’s behind whom, who’s manipulating John, who’s manipulating Phillip of France, and the Church is involved. All of that stuff is very current,” he says.

Wood says it’s normal for actors to be nervous before a show, but not like this.

“The day that feeling goes away for you, when you’re not nervous at all, you should quit. It doesn’t mean anything anymore,” said Wood. “But this type of nerves, where you know you’re not in complete control yet — I haven’t felt that since 30 years ago when I started.”

“King John” will run until Aug. 5.

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