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Sage Logan, Anna Zastrow, and David Dartley
clown around in King John
Dopplegäng Productions' take on Shakespeare's take on King John, the 13th-century British king who squabbled over large chunks of Europe with France's King Philip, begins with a bit of backstage business. As the audience enters, the actors are doing silly warm-up exercises, chatting with the audience--all of the stock, we-don't-need-no-stinkin'-fourth-wall stuff--and it soon emerges that this cast is preparing to perform Macbeth. An "audience member" leaps up, dismisses the choice of play ("Isn't that a little obscure?") and suggests King John instead. The players agree and then--can you guess?--the audience member is coaxed onto the stage to play the lead.

This sort of business can be very funny if handled just right. In this case, it's rushed and confusing; when the cast dives into the main entertainment, a fast-paced parody of Shakespeare, one wishes they'd skipped the winking and nudging prelude entirely. But director Ian Marshall clearly wants for this to be an onstage/offstage farce as well as a a satirical reckoning of King John, and so the zany, "hey-we're-actors" intrusions continue, always frustratingly halfhearted. Instead of developing interesting personae and an ongoing backstage plot, Marshall seems to have instructed his cast to pretend like they're a whiny, pompous troupe of thesps and to occasionally let that fact show through on stage. This conceit begins to get old as soon as it starts ("Hey, that actor is eating Chinese food in the wings. How wacky!") and only adds performance time to an already lengthy evening. (Admittedly, the backstage perspective does earn a big laugh when an irritated actress storms off shouting "I'm calling Equity!" and another actress follows up with "I'm calling non-Equity!")

Marshall is much stronger when making fun of William Shakespare and the conventions of Renaissance theater. He's got an extremely solid cast with good timing, a lot of funny ideas about how to spin high drama into low comedy, and (as was shown most recently in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged) a ripe target for satire in the Bard. Jeremy Sumpman in the central role is winning and charismatic; Heather Grayson moans hysterically as the overwrought Queen Constance; the lank, gaunt, and floppy-haired Philip Cuomo is perfect as a bizzaro-world version of the citizens of Angiers, to whom two kings (for reasons that are unclear) appeal to settle their dispute. Chris DePaola as "Austria" offers a terrific parody of the Shakespearean convention of naming a character after a country ("We welcome our friend Austria") with his lederhosen, his biceps, and his Schwarzeneggerian demeanor.

Much of the satire here is not particularly strong or clever; do we really need another fight scene that parodies the finger-snapping gangs of West Side Story or the aerial magic of The Matrix? But when the cast members hit their stride--as when everyone starts pronouncing the word "France" in the same disdainful tone, or when Milo Eriksen as a husky Prince Arthur is called upon to hide behind a narrow folding chair--there is great fun to be had.

But no matter how funny things get, Marshall and his cast struggle to keep our attention, in part because the plot of King John is preposterously complicated--even for Shakespeare; there is a reason why you don't see this one done in Central Park very often. Even if the play were presented in a straightforward manner, minus the show-within-a-show distractions and the Matrix parodies, it would be difficult for audiences to keep up with the machinations of John and his enemies. Since this is a parody, we're not asked to actually care about what happens next. All that is left to hold our attention is the comedy and, the Dopplegäng is not quite strong enough to pull off that trick consistently throughout a full two acts.

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