Vince Gatton in The Life and Death of King John
(© Daniel Winters)
Vince Gatton in The Life and Death of King John
(© Daniel Winters)
The two-year-old New York Shakespeare Exchange has made an unlikely choice for its first full staging of a Shakespearean text: The Life and Death of King John, now at the Access Theater.

The play is generally considered to be one of the weakest of the Bard's history plays, but director and adaptor Ross Williams rightly sees in it a vigorous, albeit uneven, story with surprisingly commanding language, sharp humor, and much resonance to our own troubled times.

To his credit, Williams offers a clean yet complete version of the work. The cast of characters has been smartly streamlined. And certain updates -- such as a scene between the Bastard and his mother, which has been transformed into a one-sided conversation on a cell phone -- are clever and penetrating.

But overall, he doesn't fully trust what he has and tries too hard to make the story palatable to modern eyes. Video footage of recent events, ranging from various British royal weddings to this summer's London street riots are, at best, extraneous images that unnecessarily spoon feed the production's concepts to the audience. Others, like an opening montage spotlighting the Kardashians, are simply disruptive.

Set and props designer G. Warren Stiles has done admirable work, but it's for some other play besides this one. The fact that King John is occasionally funny (sometimes even intentionally so) and possesses a certain resemblance to modern, political events doesn't make it a domestic comedy, let alone one that would be persuasively set, even allegorically, in a posh, Soho loft apartment, as Williams has done.

Vince Gatton, in the title role, doesn't quite master the difficult later scenes documenting John's collapse, but he does effectively convey both the prestige and the narcissism of this unhappy king. The most consistent and nuanced performances come from Chris Thorn as the King of France and Christopher Michael McFarland as Hubert. If others, like Chris Bresky's turn as the Bastard, don't carry quite as much authority as their roles call for, they nevertheless have an electric energy and an admirable vocal dexterity that serve the text well.

But Williams' direction of Queen Eleanor (an indomitable, yet somewhat miscast Carmen Meyers) to roll around a living room with the King of France and then spray Mace into his eyes does very little to convey the full range of Shakespeare's story of revolution and the caprices of royal succession.