Folger Theatre — At Last!

King John

No, my 2019 New Year’s Resolution won’t be to diet. Why bother? I make that promise every January 1st and only wind up abandoning it on February 15th.

(That’s the date when Valentine’s Day candy is slashed to half-price.)

So this year I’ll make a resolution that I can carry out not only faithfully but enthusiastically: I resolve to go to Washington, DC more often and see productions at Folger Theatre.

I’m deeply ashamed that many moons had to pass before I found my way to 201 East Capitol Street, SE.

In all the decades that I’ve traveled to the District of Columbia to see plays and musicals, I’ve attended the National, Ford’s, Arena Stage, the Source as well as the Kennedy Center’s Opera House and Eisenhower Theatres.

But never to Folger Theatre.

I can’t use the excuse that it’s new. Henry and Emily Folger built the theater in the ‘30s as part of their Folger Shakespeare Library. They incorporated elements of The Globe and The Fortune Theatres that were each built around the end of the 16th century. Thus there’s a stage with two pillars and a theater with two balconies in a wooden, uh, square.

Granted, for many years, the playhouse went unused and simply served to show visitors what an Elizabethan theater resembled. Although an amateur group staged JULIUS CAESAR there in 1949 – and even got it televised – performances in earnest didn’t begin until 1970.

Nevertheless, 48 years was still plenty of time for me to have caught performances at Folger. And yet, not until last month did I attend. Frankly, even if the production had stunk, the view of the Capitol Building as I drove down the street would have been worth the trip.

But inside Folger was a wonderful production of KING JOHN. Aaron Posner, who did terrific work during his tenure as artistic director of The Two River Theatre Company in Red Bank, NJ, continued to exhibit his excellent way with a script.

In a Posner-written prologue, he established that the Plantagenets took their name from planta genista, the Latin words for the yellow broom flower that each noble wore placed upon his helmet. Costume designer Sarah Cubbage offered no helmets, so Posner had each Plantagenet wear a yellow flower as a boutonniere. By having the French characters sport little blue flowers, the audience knew at all times who was on which side.

There is one caveat about that prologue, though, Posner had the actors tell the audience the names of the characters they’d play. It was a nice idea, but as the production unfolded, recalling the name of each was nigh-impossible.

Films in the ‘30s often began with pictures of their actors with subtitles of their names and the characters they’d play – but who remembered them after the plot got going? No wonder Hollywood soon stopped this practice and put the actors and characters’ names following “The End.” By then, audiences had had ample time to meet everyone.

One can’t complain of Posner’s aim of making KING JOHN as accessible as possible. Let’s face it: Shakespeare’s plays, especially the obscure ones, are often difficult for some audiences who’d welcome all the help they could get. So Posner might have instead apportioned these character identifications at various points in the play when theatergoers needed to know right then and there who was who.

Posner did, in fact, do some interspersing, but with quotations from some of The Bard’s Greatest Hits. (The famous one from RICHARD III got a surprised gasp from the audience.) Well, Shakespeare IS in the public domain, but even without the additions, Posner showed that there’s definitely great worth in KING JOHN. The play is so impressive that I had to wonder why it isn’t done far more often. It even offers a scene that rivals the harrowing one in another of Shakespeare’s King plays – the one about Lear where Gloucester suffers terribly.

How wise of Posner to place his performers close to the stage’s apron. Again, many people need help with Shakespeare, and lip-reading can often be a boon. Just as smart was Posner’s staging the soliloquies and the asides right in front of the audience and having them delivered in a no-bones-about-it fashion.

The conventional way of staging soliloquies is to have the characters speak aloud to themselves as if they’re in their own little worlds. Posner instead had his characters speak directly, make eye contact with and seem to take the theatergoers into their confidence.

During the scene in which John’s personal assistant Hubert (a fine Elan Zafir) must honor the king’s command to kill a mere child, Posner provided nail-biting tension. Even when the British and French kings were about to shake hands in compromise, Posner staged the scene as if each monarch suspected a sneak attack from the other and would be ready to arm-wrestle should the enemy try it.

As the title character, the always impressive and reliable Brian Dykstra was again exemplary. From the start, his John conveyed the perfect “It’s good to be the king” attitude. Dykstra’s John laughed off everyone who gave him advice he didn’t like (not to mention criticism). In fact, he seemed genuinely amused that anyone would oppose or question him. This John couldn’t take anything seriously, because as the king, what could possibly go wrong for him?

When he was forced to give an apology, Dykstra showed that John would do it in laugh-it-off perfunctory fashion. He also expected Hubert to constantly guess what was on his mind, feeling that he needn’t bother to tell him.

And yet, every now and then, Dykstra would lean forward and squint in confusion. He conveyed that John was trying mightily (and failing) to understand what was actually happening and the possible ramifications.

At the performance I attended, Dykstra did slip on a stair. The experienced actor nicely covered it by giving a doleful look that said “How could I have missed that?”

However, this slip-up turned out to be quite the fake-out, for Posner used the gaffe as a running joke. Every now and then, Dykstra ignobly missed the step that was right in front of him. What a smart metaphor for the king’s not seeing the dangers that were right under his nose. It also set the tone for the last moments of John’s reign when he was reduced to a fetal position.

Was it Posner or Cubbage who decided that everyone should be dressed in distressed clothes? King John wore baggy pants worthy of a burlesque comic (which complemented his lack of gravitas). Top hats worthy of toffs adorned the more regal characters while bowler hats were on the less lofty ones, making some resemble Vladimir and Estragon.

“Mad world! Mad kings!” as the character known as Bastard said. (His actual name was Philip, as was the King of France’s, too, so Shakespeare identified him by his illegitimacy to distinguish His Lowliness from His Highness.)

Here was one example (out of five) of Posner’s non-traditional gender casting. Although Bastard snarled “I’m no woman,” Kate Eastwood Norris, playing the part, indeed is. Eastwood Norris was equally as strong when stating “This England never did, nor never shall, lie at the proud foot of a conqueror.” (Ever since that phrase was first uttered in the late 1590s, it’s undoubtedly hit the spot with British audiences.)

Holly Twyford has long been treasured in Washington and here one could easily see why. She managed to be convincingly masculine when portraying English noble Pembroke and became nobler still – yet feminine — when playing Constance, mother of Arthur (whom the French believed was the rightful heir to the English throne). When a Cardinal pooh-poohed Constance’s feelings about Arthur, Twyford subtly yet intensely muttered “He talks to me that never had a son.” Point well-taken.

Posner did make time for one time-honored convention. Did you ever notice that in any Shakespeare production when someone enters barefoot that it’s a good indication that the character is crazy?

Well, I’ve been metaphorically barefoot when it comes to Folger: crazy for not having it on my radar for lo these many years. Don’t make the same mistake. Jessica Swale’s NELL GWYNN starts performances on January 29. See you there!