Big Bad ‘John’

Against the odds, MSC's 'King John' is rich entertainment

William Shakespeare’s King John is not, at first glance, the kind of play one expects would be much fun to watch.

Densely packed with 13th-century political wheeler-dealers revolving around a monarch widely known to have been inept, insecure and evil, King John does not have a riveting historical figure at its core. Indeed, over the centuries, when John does appear in legends and stories, it’s usually as the foppish foil to Robin Hood, who may not even have actually existed. All of this leads one to suspect that the play might be less than riotous entertainment.

It all depends on what you do with it.

In the larger-than-life production currently running in San Rafael, the Marin Shakespeare Company stages King John with the clear understanding that the play needs a little help to achieve mass appeal. Under the direction of Lesley Schisgall Currier, the play becomes less a historical relic and more a comic melodrama, with John’s enemies transformed into wacky caricatures with outrageous Monty Python accents and the action staged like a Medieval soap opera, complete with ominous organ music to accompany appearances of certain bad-guy characters.

The weird thing is, it works.

Though the cast is uneven and the pacing a bit too plodding in the first act, this is a King John that truly entertains, especially in the second half, when Shakespeare’s plot really starts cooking. As John, Scott Coopwood is a blast, careening from moments of pompous self-control to a late-career meltdown that’s both tragic and funny. Coopwood even wrings laughs from the scene where he sneakily sentences his own boyish nephew to death. As John’s other nephew, Philip the Bastard, Erik MacRay is wonderful, assaying a spectacular arc from conniving social climber to Errol Flynn–style hero.

Coincidentally, King John is just one of two shows currently running in the North Bay to feature John as a character. James Goldman’s Lion in Winter (running through Aug. 18 at Main Stage West in Sebastopol) presents John as a conniving 16-year-old, pitched in a chesslike match of wits against his entire family.

Onstage at Forest Meadows, the John who once schemed to become king has done so, but begins to wonder why he bothered. Marin Shakespeare Company’s production isn’t the most subtle version of King John you’ll ever see, if you do ever see another. And it’s unlikely to be the classiest. But it might be the most fun.

‘King John’ runs Friday–Sunday through Aug. 12 at the Forest Meadows Amphitheater at Dominican University. 890 Belle Ave., San Rafael. Showtimes vary. $20–$35. 415.499.4488.