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Tim Sailer plays the title character in Texas Shakespeare Festival’s “King John”

KILGORE — It is always a pleasure to stumble across an unexpected gem and the Texas Shakespeare Festival’s “King John” shines brilliantly.

When I saw the lineup for this year’s festival I was most excited to see “King John” precisely because I had never seen it, nor even read it. It is an exaggeration to say the nobody does it anymore, but this year there are only two professional productions in the U.S. It was quite popular up through the end of the 1800s, partly because of the opportunity for spectacle, which audiences enjoyed.

Written in the mid-1590s though not published until the 1623 “First Folio,” “King John” is one of only two Shakespeare plays written completely in verse (the other being “Richard II”). It is an epic tale of power, deceit and political intrigue, and director James Dean Palmer, for whom this was a passion project, skillfully drives the action with an organic, almost choreographed precision that makes the complexity of the story simple to follow.

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Eleanor of Aquitaine and King John (Joan Korte and Tim Sailer) in a scene fromTexas Shakespeare Festival’s “King John.” Photo courtesy TSF Facebook

This is not the simpering, thumb-sucking king of Disney’s “Robin Hood” fame, nor does the play delve into the Magna Carta, probably the most significant historical event of his reign. Shakespeare is interested in the personal toll that political intrigue takes on he who wears the crown. John, played superbly by Tim Sailer, is clever and well versed in politics, guided by Eleanor of Aquitaine (Joan Korte), his powerhouse of a mother who is as skilled at the game as any man.

The year is 1199 and after the death of his brother, Richard the Lionheart, With his older brother Geoffrey also dead, John is now king. However, the French think that John’s nephew Arthur, son of Geoffrey, is the rightful heir.

The play opens with the Faulconbridge family bringing a dispute about inheritance to the court. Philip “the Bastard” (Conor Finnerty-Esmonde) is being denied a share in the family lands. Eleanor recognizes Philip as Richard’s illegitimate son. He relinquishes his claim to the Faulconbridge estate and in return is knighted and recognized as Richard Plantagenet.

The Bastard becomes a surrogate for the audience, commenting on the twists and turns of the political machinations of the French and English courts. Finnerty-Esmonde’s Bastard is rustic and coarse, yet at the same time he is the play’s moral conscience, the commoner observing the shenanigans of power.

King Philip (DJ Canaday) and the French troops lay siege to the English-ruled town of Angiers until they agree to recognize Arthur as the true English king. However, the English arrive. Eleanor and Constance, Arthur’s mother, trade insults and the townsfolk decide to wait to see who wins between the two armies.

Palmer’s battles are heavily stylized, yet convey the chaos and brutality of medieval warfare. Part of the production’s brilliance is the semi-abstract staging that at the same time has a visceral realness.

With neither side earning victory, the Bastard proposes that a marriage between Philip’s son, the Dauphin Louis, and John’s niece Blanche, which would give John a stronger claim to the throne. Constance is furious but the two kings are pragmatic and recognize that a peace will give each time to plan a new strategy.

John takes Arthur and imprisons him, returning to England where he sets the Bastard to sack the monasteries. This sets off a series of choices that lead John down the path to disaster.

Theater is an ensemble experience and “King John” is an ensemble that extends far beyond the actors on the stage. Ethan Hollinger’s lighting, Anthony Narciso’s sound design and Angelina M. Herin‘s costume design join Sam Transleau’s scenic design and Palmer’s direction to create an emotionally immersive performance (and “Dickie” the lion, is a particularly impressive visual element).

Sailer’s performance is a tour de force. He presents himself as cocksure and arrogant — and a warrior, but he is also the embodiment of the expression “uneasy lies the crown.” He manages to garner sympathy for what should be, on the surface, an unsympathetic character. Korte’s Eleanor is Sailer’s equal in stage presence. The two of them create a formidable team as they fight not only to maintain power, but also to continue building an empire.

“King John” is an absolute delight. It is fast-paced with dynamic set pieces and excellent performances throughout. It’s exploration of the absurd pitfalls of political maneuvering seems to be more resonant every day.

Maybe this play about “Mad world! mad kings! mad composition!” (according to the Bastard) is heading for a revival of popularity. Considered one of Shakespeare’s lesser plays. it has all the elements, in the right hands, to be a great play. Maybe the Victorians were onto something.

The Texas Shakespeare Festival, now in its 32nd season, is also presenting “Love’s Labours Lost,” “Tartuffe” and “110 in the Shade” in repertory. A weekend trip to see all four main stage productions is well worth the effort. The season runs through July 29.

For tickets and information, visit www.texasshakespeare.com.

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