“Risky” is probably the best way to describe Bohrs Hoff’s production of The Life and Death of King John. For starters, it is a production of one of Shakespeare’s least known and least performed plays.
“It’s a play I love that I hadn’t seen on stage,” Hoff said, following Monday’s dress rehearsal. “I wanted to give it time to see the light of day on stage.”
Furthermore, Hoff’s production is far from traditional. Shakespeare’s text is a more or less straightforward history with elements of political absurdity. Whereas, Hoff’s version is a full-on satire, complete with shadow puppets, Monty Python-esque cartoon interludes and King John (Maddie Lenarz Hooyman) is portrayed as more incompetent and incontinent than regal.
“The play thematically touches on the absurdities of war,” Hoff said. “I wanted to take the time to comment on how absurd these political alliances are and how quickly they shift in the heat of battle.”
The most striking and aesthetically defining aspect of this production is the use of puppetry and illustration. The show’s elaborate sets, as well as some secondary characters, are represented by drawings displayed behind three back-lit screens. What seems to be a bold artistic choice has its roots in more practical concerns.
“The idea behind the puppetry was utilitarian,” Hoff said. “The script calls for lots of people shouting down from parapets and things like that. I had to think of a way to force that perspective.”
The rest of the play’s unusual elements, such as the fact that most characters wear masquerade masks, arose as extensions of the puppetry aesthetic. They also serve to liven up the play and engage audiences whom Hoff feels may not have fully appreciated the humorous aspects of Shakespeare’s original text.
“I personally did the cut of [the script],” Hoff said. “A lot of it was cutting out admittedly dated jokes 8212; puns and wordplay that contemporary audiences just wouldn’t get.”The downside of this is that the over-the-top elements, intended to accentuate the absurdity of the plot, threaten to overwhelm the audience. Only a handful of characters engage the audience on a level other than broad comedy and the play’s occasional shifts into more straightforward drama are somewhat disorienting.
The play’s best performance is senior Alyson Grauer’s highly charismatic turn as Richard the Lionheart’s bastard son. She manages to be very funny while still creating a nuanced character who wouldn’t be out of place in a more traditionally dramatic production. This character, who balances a winking acknowledgment of the absurdity of the political machinations on display with a genuine dramatic arc, consistently represents the tone that the rest of the play manages to hit at very its best moments.
The timelessness of the themes on display is the most compelling reason to see this production. It is always worthwhile to be reminded of the flawed humanity behind powerful institutions.
“It’s not just heads of state,” Hoff said. “There’s people who work in any given job. People who have power but don’t deserve it or know how to use it.”
King John opens Wednesday, Feb. 24 and runs through Sunday, Feb. 27. Located at Mundelein Auditorium, room 409. Tickets are $6.]]>