The New York Shakespeare Exchange—founded just two years ago—states that their mission is to offer “innovative theatrical programming that explores what happens when contemporary culture is infused with Shakespearean poetry and themes in unexpected ways.” And their wonderful, insightfully rendered production of The Life and Death of King John, running until October 2nd at the Access Theater, achieves exactly that.
Director/Adaptor Ross Williams has moved King John from the battlefields and halls of 13th century France and England into a brightly-decorated, technology-filled loft apartment. This shift works remarkably well, creating a dialogue between Shakespeare’s language and the modern world which underscores the timelessness of political maneuvering and the human desire for power. Indeed, Leigh Williams’ performance as Constance—a totally insufferable crazyperson—calls to mind Michelle Bachmann while Vince Gatton’s dramatic, unstable King John has some distinctly Boehner-esque notes.
Speaking of the actors—basically every single performance in this production is rock solid. Seriously. You could pay a lot of money to sit through some big Broadway shows that have perhaps one redeeming performance (Wonderland, anyone?), and right now at the Access Theater it’ll run you a whopping $18 to see about 16 of them. To call out but a few: JC Vasquez’s Arthur is believably young, sensitive and lost. Chris Bresky has a serious way with the Bard’s verbose dialogue and his Bastard is both hilarious and powerful. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the really cute Zac Hoogendyk, who is giving a great performance as the Earl of Salisbury and who also happens to have some beautiful blue eyes and a tiny piece of my heart.
The cast never leaves the stage/set/apartment, and Williams has almost entirely erased the transitions between scenes, which gives the production both an incisive clarity and a remarkable, fluid urgency. This production of King John is not only educational but thoroughly enjoyable, feeling much shorter than its 2.5 hours and more modern than its Elizabethan publication date would suggest.