BORROWING SHAKESPEARE'S MAGIC: Five History Plays on LA Stages


Jay Quantrill

Jay Quantrill

Writer, Better Lemons


For more than a year now, we’ve been living through the historic and historical – and at times hysterical –  theatricality of our times. To suggest that the Shakespearean heights are daily surmounted in the Tweeted Tussles of our Clownish Head of State, has become a cliché of journalism – which, like it or not (pace Donny J.), is the first draft of history.  This fall, Southland theatergoers have had plenty of opportunities to enjoy the dumb-show eccentricities of history on parade.  Here is an examination of five such plays that have recently been in LA: KING CHARLES III, KING JOHN, SOMETHING ROTTEN, THE HEART OF ROBIN HOOD and PACIFIC OVERTURES. (Editor’s Note: SOMETHING ROTTEN continues until December 31. PACIFIC OVERTURES has 3 more shows this weekend on Friday at 8 pm and Saturday at 3 and 8.)

Jim Abele, Mark Capri, Dylan Saunders, Laura Gardner in King Charles III

King Charles III, a play by England’s Mike Bartlett, tells the what-if “history” of the current Prince of Wales, Charles Windsor, were he ever to become king of the shrunken United Kingdom. As speculative “history,” King Charles III is certainly a tale of troubles. It intriguingly projects the challenge to the British monarchy into a chaotic future.

It has a promising premise – one could call it a Shavian conceit – with the pre-crowned, 70-ish Charles taking a regal stand against Parliament’s new law that will render the press “a little less free.” Like a Shakespearean history plays, Charles III develops into a crisis over the succession to the throne which sparks the threats of rebellion and war. However, in place of gutsy Shakespearean passion and psychology we are given “poor me” wailings about the rigors and strictures of being a Royal.

Written in blank verse (generally-unrhymed iambic pentameter) with syntactical echoes and dramaturgical turns reminiscent of Shakespeare’s work, the script lays claim to a rarified artistic ancestry that it doesn’t always live up to. Happily, the production at the Pasadena Playhouse (now closed) is well-acted by the cast of Los Angeles actors on a stage that has been extended into the audience. This brings the action out from behind the proscenium and up close to the playgoers.

Michael Hoag, Gus Krieger and Hersha Parady in King John

On the other hand, Shakespeare’s The History of King John, a much larger play, with battles and ruined cities from London to the Loire, was presented by The Porters of Hellsgate (now closed) in a tiny NoHo black box at the Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center.

First performed 423 years ago, King John is in some ways just as speculative as Charles III. Written 380 years after the petty, spiteful and cruel, yet hapless demise of the titular king, Shakespeare, who lived in Tudor times, was writing about a Plantagenet, the dynasty from whom the Tudors wrested the throne when Welsh Henry Tudor defeated Henry VI. The Bard’s grasp of history was never precise and never got in the way of a good bit of drama. And the anti-papist Protestant English would have been thrilled to see the trouble-making characterization of the Catholic Cardinal as the infusion of evil, if not outright villainy.

Now generally listed as the 13th of Shakespeare’s works, as presented by The Porters, it plays like one of his earliest, too often shifting focus, being more work-a-day than inspired.  There are some moments to recommend it. Lady Constance’s heartfelt grief when the King puts her teenage son under guard with an order to kill him, and the boy’s successful pleading for his life. Perhaps the most intriguing character is a bastard son of Richard the Lionheart, a crafty young man maneuvering between politicos. Called The Bastard, he is the least historical (hinted at by Holinshed in his chronicles, from which Shakespeare drew the story) and yet, he is the first creation by Shakespeare of a character with an inner life,  the progenitor of a line of charismatic characters, loveable and detestable, that runs through Hotspurs and Falstaff to Hamlet, Iago, and Edmund – and even Caliban. For villainous as the Bastard might seem, any character with the smarts to observe:

Whiles I am a beggar, I will rail
And say there is no sin but to be rich;
And being rich, my virtue then shall be
To say there is no vice but beggary.

is a character to treasure and was Shakespeare’s first psychologically self-motivating character.

Having nowhere near the finances or theatrical resources of the Pasadena Playhouse, one would not expect the lavish pomp and sumptuous circumstance that made this a popular play in the 19th Century. Instead, an intimate production in a 50-seat theater could better focus on the clarity and depth of the issues and relationships. Unfortunately, at The Porters’ the dramatis personae are almost all attitude without any reality or feeling.  They are not the first to be undone by the flawed dramaturgy of King John, and they won’t be the last.  It is as The Bastard says, “Sweet poison for the Age’s tooth.”

While Shakespeare’s King John scrambles flawed history, the charmingly produced play with music, The Heart of Robin Hood deals with a medieval folk tale from the same King’s reign.  As seen at the Wallis in Beverly Hills, this touring family production toys what is now thought to be a myth based on a legend which is in turn grounded in the harsh historical truth of King John’s reign: the terror of John’s greed and ruthlessness. In a clever, first class touring production that turns the usual fascination with Robin on its political correct tush, Maid Marion is a heroine for the ages, dashing into the forest to teach Robin the thief the value of giving to the poor. That she saves Robin from King (here Prince) John is a feminist twist that leaves holes in the logic, emotion in the wings, and the dramatics to an Icelandic director’s clever use of theatrics. And clever it is, and wants to be. As originally produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in London, it is a splendid presentation of a simplistic, often delightfully silly, script with more and more echoes of Shakespeare. It seems to exist mainly to beguile and to inspire young girls to bravery.

Blake Hammond and Rob McClure in Something Rotten

For a third work spawned from Shakespearean genetics, we are lucky to have the musical Something Rotten (Ahmanson Theater). Twenty years in the making, it’s about as tuneful as a recital of operatic recitative, but makes up for the lack of melody with a surfeit of choreographic mayhem, clever direction and first-class performances.  It’s a romp, with no pretensions to classic theater. It has very little claim on history, except, oddly enough, the chronicles of Musical Theater. And if you don’t know the history of the American musical you’ll have less than half the fun most theater-goers have. Perhaps the show too often relies on snippets of songs and famous line-references from the history of popular musicals like Oklahoma! Sunset Boulevard, Cats, and the entire Sondheim canon. It gives us puns and mugging in place of irony, intrigue, or depth, but then it has no pretensions to history, devoted as it is to entertainment.  And it delivers. It is centered on a character that goes by the name of Nick Bottom (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream), one of the Bard’s more captivating creations, and creates for him a brother, Nigel. They need a new show. The Soothsayer predicts the next big thing will me – musicals! Shakespeare is a character with as much humanity as you can give a spoofed-up rock star stage writer. Clever, often effervescent, it is a memorable an evening of fluff that delivers just that – but only that! Leave history to others.

The often sublime, Pacific Overtures, is on the other hand one of the deft gems of the musical theater. Born of the art of Stephen Sondheim, 41 years ago, with John Weidman’s witty book, and Hal Prince’s brilliant direction, it originally starred Los Angeles’ great Mak0 (film and television actor and first artistic director of East West Players).

As history, Pacific Overtures is more kaleidoscopic than academic, which is to say, it gives us the feel of history without concern for narrative consistency. Like Shakespeare’s The Tempest, what action there is flows from the unexpected arrival of disturbing forces on a magical island.  To suggest that The Reciter (Mako’s role) in Overtures is an unintended descendent of The Bard’s Prospero may not be the stretch it seems on first blush. Both characters share a magical power within the context of their individual worlds.

Pacific Overtures is one of the Sondheim-Prince musicals from the last quarter of the 20th Century (this one produced in 1976 for the Bicentennial of American Independence). And it stretched the limits of musical theater far beyond the romantic limits of boy-or-girl meets girl-or-boy, mix-and-match. It follows Admiral Perry’s “opening up” of Japan’s closed samurai culture to its sadly logical conclusion of crass commerciality that was in the late 20th Century seen as “Japan today.”

And as Prospero uses “my so potent art” which he calls “rough magic” to create a Tempest that will alter his fortunes, requiring “Some heavenly music, which even now I do, To work mine end…” he seems to be conjuring the musical in which The Reciter foresees a Tempest of culture that will “threaten the serene and changeless cycle of our days,” singing:

“In the middle of the world we float
In the middle of the sea
The realities remain remote
In the middle of the sea.”

It plays more as a theatrical statement of America’s responsibility for spreading the evils of rampant capitalism than as a narrative drama. But the material is so dazzlingly sophisticated, pungent, and polished that it remains a delight to experience, including a charming romp by Europeans and American ambassadors that brings the show up to its somewhat regrettable end with a brash and vulgar finale about late 20th Century American marketing, Japanese style. Like a Smash-Cut, the finale shatters whatever the mood might have been created and brings home the message with a crunching SPLAT! (which is unfortunately, the “message” it’s creators intended). Prospero just breaks his magic wand and begs

“As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.”

While Pacific Overtures gets a rather drab re-doing by the ever-adventurous Chromolume Theater, they obviously have deep respect for the material. The company of 12 men and one woman has the material down pat, but the production lacks the style required for Sondheim’s well-honed delights. And one misses the delicate balance between Japanese poetics and Samurai brutality upon which the success of the work depends. With the entire company in black – except for the one-time appearance of the brightly kimono’d “Ladies of Kanagawa” – and displaying little of the ritual discipline of Japan’s theatrical tradition, the production gives us the charm of the score and little else to while away the two and a half hours trafficking.

Of course, presenting a multi-million dollar mounting of a demanding musical is not possible in an under-99 seat theater where the intimacy of scale allows intensity to do the work of extravagance! Shakespeare seems to have understood that issue as he moved between his giant Globe theater into the more intimate Black Friars. For us, Sondheim is easily his match for endlessly inventive, ironic, and perceptive writing, and Something Rotten does at least live within the madcap world of the Bard’s comic genius. Meanwhile, we of the Fabulous Invalid, soldier on.

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