Please let there always be a Folger Theatre. In this Age of (Largely Useless) Information in which so much of life is co-opted by an agitated, luminous screen, it is such a rare sensory pleasure to be ensconced in the dark, mock-medieval confines of this intimate little venue, knowing that whatever takes the stage will be urgent, soulful, cerebral and often irreverently funny.
There will be no shortcuts, gimmicks, or monetized lens — rather it will be that high-risk adventure of bringing to life the classical words, stories and ideas that, if they find their twenty-first century synergy, shoot like fireworks through the modern heart and mind. Does it help to be a Shakespeare geek? Sure. Is it required? Hell no. Put simply: Any time spent inside the Folger’s enchanted walls is time well-spent.
So, being the earliest and rather ponderously formed of his so-called historical plays, Shakespeare’s King John () isn’t exactly top of the repertoire. But as envisioned here by director Aaron Posner and his stellar cast, one suddenly wants to ask why? It may have a lesser kind of gravitas and dimension than the plays that came later, but seen with a keen enough sensibility there is still so much here to savor, especially in its language of loss. And that’s the Folger magic all over — they do love a challenge.
Always attuned to what ails and what entertains, Posner brings just the right emphasis to the obsessive, ambitious adults scrabbling for power over the head of a tender shoot of a boy — one who never quite gets why honor matters so little to his elders and supposed betters. The players — immersed in the Folger tradition of not just theatrical, but intellectual engagement — deliver on Posner’s promise, breathing vibrant, quirkily human life into every moment.
Of course, there are some conundrums here, first and foremost being what to do with the convoluted backstory to the drama: the machinations of rule as England vied to maintain control vast swaths of France and the passage of power down none-too-straight bloodlines. Posner solves both with a friendly preamble in which the characters introduce themselves. If it teeters a tad too close for comfort to the kind of toe-curling accommodations found in educational theater, it does save some significant struggles later to follow the elaborate family trees.
And, frankly, once the drama takes hold, there’s no looking back. As the program notes, this was a cast deep into the interpretation during rehearsals and the result is a gratifying ease and the space for real personality. For all-out mind-bendingly consummate skill and manifestation, Holly Twyford’s Constance must ultimately take first mention. As mother to the illegitimate, young Arthur, she advocates as relentlessly as a crazed stage mother for his crown, only to reveal later her keening, unfathomable grief and despair at his loss. Twyford makes both sides of this Constance riveting and believable, delivering her Shakespeare with an extraordinary fluidity. As King John, Brian Dykstra is immensely, messily credible. So joyfully free of the usual “kingly” posturing, he cogitates and angsts, slumps and equivocates, and when frustrated, yells. He is completely convincing as a leader who cannot imagine life without his “borrowed majesty” and yet has no idea what to do with it.
Searingly memorable as the principled Philip Faulconbridge, Kate Eastwood Norris turns the concept of the “trouser role” on its head, delivering her man with unfettered charisma and a beautifully mannered command of the language. In smaller roles, Megan Graves absolutely shines as the oft-tearful young Arthur, plaintively attempting to manage the adults on whom he must depend. As The Dauphin, Akeem Davis brings a memorable warmth and integrity and a masterful command in the language. In the role of the interestingly power female character, Queen Eleanor, John’s mother, Kate Goehring delivers a vibrant energy in her remonstrations, along with a sense of where this John gets his insecurities. As the French king, Philip, Howard W. Overshown keeps it effectively understated and yet maintains the man’s sense of menace.
Continuing in the Folger’s undaunted tradition, this compelling, intimate King John is another small but enduring reason why our phones will never, ever, be enough.
King John runs to Dec. 2 at Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Tickets are $42 to $79. Call 202-544-7077 or visit folger.edu.