The average theatergoer probably knows two things about King John: 1) He was the obnoxious adolescent in James Goldman's "The Lion in Winter," and 2) He was Robin Hood's adversary. OK. Maybe a third thing: Shakespeare wrote a play about him.
But that play is hardly ever produced. In fact, the current production at the Shakespeare Theatre is its Washington debut.
However, far from proving a moth-ridden relic, director Michael Kahn's production has no trouble grabbing and holding an audience's attention. Granted, the play -- to which Kahn has added passages from "The Troublesome Reign of John, King of England," the 1591 play believed to be Shakespeare's source -- doesn't have a lot of depth. What we get instead are enough shifting allegiances to suggest fickle tag-team maneuvers of the World Wrestling Federation.
King John antagonizes the pope, then comes crawling back when it is politically expedient. And three of John's supporters -- Salisbury, Pembroke and Essex -- switch sides to support the French, only to switch back when they learn what the French have in store for them.
Such vacillation does not lend itself to character development, which may explain why Philip Goodwin plays King John as primarily a wishy-washy opportunist, a spoiled monarch who still has plenty in common with playwright Goldman's selfish teen-age prince.
The more intriguing character is Richard the Lion-Hearted's bastard son, who also serves as the play's sarcastic commentator. Played with gusto by Edward Gero, he eventually exhibits more leadership qualities than the kings of France and England combined.
There are also three choice roles for women (two of whom, unfortunately, die a little more than halfway through the play). Kahn has cast Baltimore actress Tana Hicken as John's mother, Eleanor, the same role the actress played earlier this season in "The Lion in Winter" at Everyman Theatre. Eleanor was primarily a verbal fighter in that play. Here, she's a physical warrior as well, charging into battle in full armor and displaying a spirit as tenacious as any man on the field.
Eleanor's chief rival is her daughter-in-law, Constance, widow of John's older brother, Geoffrey, and mother of Arthur, whom Constance insists is the rightful heir to the throne. Jennifer Harmon's Constance is also a tigress, but the lack of modulation in her performance drains some of the impact from her final scene.
The third woman is Blanche, who marries Lewis, son of the French king. Though Blanche is easily the sweetest of the three, as played by Laurena Mullins, even this young bride leaves you feeling that these warring nations would be in better hands if the women were in control. Unlike their male counterparts, the women have no trouble sorting out where their sympathies lie.
Finally, the play has a harrowing scene of Gothic horror, which no one who sees this production is likely to forget. Having captured his nephew, Arthur, King John convinces one of his supporters, loyal Hubert (Andrew Long) to dispose of the lad. Long's scene with the boy (alternately played by Derek Kahn Thompson and Lee Hagy) could easily dissolve into maudlin melodrama, but Long's conscience-ridden performance makes it heart-rending.
"King John" is most likely to appeal to die-hard Shakespeare fans and British history buffs. With little of the psychological insight we have come to expect from Shakespeare, the play is hardly one of his masterpieces. But at the Shakespeare Theatre, the action never lags, and a play often considered little more than a literary rarity proves surprisingly dramatic.
Indeed, the battle scenes alone -- staged in stunning, stylized slow motion by David Leong against Ming Cho Lee's gray, black and blood red set -- are almost worth the price of admission.
Where: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th St., N.W., Washington
When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, and noon March 3 and 4. Through March 6.
Call: 202-547-1122 Pub Date: 1/27/99