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Ashland Theater Review: "King John"

Jenny Graham
Jessika Williams, left, and Kate Wisniewski

Shakespeare’s King John, one of his lesser known works, is now playing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in a fresh, unconventional production. Presented in association with Upstart Crow Collective of Seattle, the drama, directed by Rosa Joshi, features 12 women in all the roles.

The performance begins with two young people playing checkers. Later we see a projected checker board showing two soldiers fighting in one square, then two squares, and eventually all the squares — a senseless, wasteful war. About what? It’s unlikely that American audiences will be familiar with the vicious power struggles among Medieval English and French monarchs, but the way those kings played dirty is certainly reminiscent of our current political battles. Don’t worry about trying to catch the details, you’ll easily understand the dynamics of greedy power grabs.

Kate Wisniewski makes a fascinating King John, who behaves like a spoiled child, throwing tantrums and kicking his throne. With a mother as astute and overbearing as Eleanor of Aquitaine, and the deceased Richard the Lionheart for a big brother, it’s no surprise that he’s got problems.

Serious problems. He’s not the legitimate king, and contenders are waiting in the wings. Also lurking about is Richard’s illegitimate son, played with great charisma by Jessika Williams. John’s enemies, both French and English, are myriad. Essentially the play consists of scenes in which bickering factions try to outshout each other, alternating with battle scenes in which they kill each other.

The forces of good and evil seem to be fighting for the souls of the characters in this play. Only a few are decent and principled, and the fate of King John appears to be hopeless.

Dorothy Velasco has reviewed productions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for KLCC since 1985.