Walking into a William Shakespeare play—especially one about the bloody wars and family intrigue that marked the reign of King John of England—the last thing you would expect is to see knights in leggings and the king himself wearing a metallic gold suit matching a pair of shiny gold Converse boots.
But that’s exactly what you will see in this production of King John by Praxis Stage. Directed by Kimberly Gaughan, it runs through Feb. 16 at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts.
Surprise aside, Praxis Stage’s King John is a modern take on what would otherwise be a fairly complicated, kind-of-depressing tragedy out of Shakespeare’s seemingly endless repertoire of plays addressing the monumental messes made by medieval English kings we know little about. As it turns out, the shiny golden outfit is a perfect fit for this king’s character; a man who seems so full of himself all the time, John was constantly haunted by the fear of losing everything and the unspeakable doubt over his own bad decisions, of which there were apparently a lot.
With an excellent cast led by Michael Underhill as King John, this production brings to life Shakespeare’s theatrical portrayal of all the royal intrigue and warring between “those two lover nations,” England and France.
My favorite moments came from the performances of Daniel Boudreau and Jane Reagan. Boudreau as the characters of Pandulf, Chatillion, a citizen on the wall, and most notably Austria (yes, the country), which he artfully depicts as a wild-looking, ferocious warrior with a black, messy wig handling unfinished business with the bastard child of recently-killed King Richard the Lionheart (don’t worry, it gets resolved, one way or another).
Reagan delivers a moving, heart-wrenching performance as Lady Blanche, arguably one of the most tragic characters in the play, marked by suffering and entrapped in a painful choice between her English family and her newly acquired French husband. Through Reagan’s interpretation, we experience the pain of a victim of the never-ending English-French conflict.
Overall, the cast is the highlight. The actors’ ability to convey emotions is what carries the audience beyond Shakespeare’s intricate narratives and hard-to-grasp, antiquated language, and connects us with the more universal themes that King John has to offer: grief and death, love and friendship, humanity and compassion, politics and legacy.
Praxis’s production sheds the excess to underline what is essential. With just a few props moved around by the actors themselves, the company finds innovative and creative ways to stage things that would often require a Game of Thrones-like budget. There’s none of that here; rather, a full-out war between France and England is a dance on stage, while the suicide of a prince is a delicate, slow-motion fall to the ground.
It’s all about symbolism. And if you can get past the Shakespearean speech and structure, it works.
KING JOHN BY PRAXIS STAGE. THROUGH 2.16 AT BOSTON CENTER FOR THE ARTS, 527 TREMONT ST. MORE INFO AND TICKETS AT PRAXISSTAGE.COM.