In Insurgo’s "The Life and Death of King John," founder John Beane doesn’t act the title role; he shoots up on it. From the first moment we see him, he’s glassy-eyed, wide-eyed, cockeyed and binge drunk. This might be fine if he were playing Norman Bates. The trouble is, he’s not really playing anyone – except maybe a Method-mad actor.
The script – which spends a lot of time with squabbles over who should wear the British crown – is an intriguing look at contrasts: the role behavior plays in events, versus fate; the relationship between being a good man and a good patriot; the rise and fall of the king and the humble beginnings and rise of a man called The Bastard.
The king is not an idiot. His actions are controversial, and halfway through the story he becomes cowardly. The Bastard, though, starts out as a mischievous, amusing, ambitious man who, by plot’s end, proves himself a heroic and loyal countryman.
By portraying the king from the first scene as a pleasure-obsessed oaf, Beane robs the role of its dramatic arc.
Brandon McClenahan communicates The Bastard’s transformation into nobleman but bastardizes the character’s emotional adolescence. The character is funny and social-climbing but ultimately harmless. McClenahan makes him sound like an evil Iago.
Part of this is simply because of McClenahan’s inability to understand subtlety. There’s so much uncontrolled, strained shouting going on that you fear for the actors’ vocal chords.
And in this mostly modern-dress production, Beane uses guns so arbitrarily and frequently that he seems to be doing a "Goodfellas" spoof. Are we supposed to take this seriously? (I doubt, too, that any subject who pointed a gun at a king would keep a head on his shoulders for long.)
Most of the 11-member cast have trouble with the language, with Beane in particular showing no mercy. There’s some relief in female Sydny Hansen’s natural style as the young, doomed boy Arthur. And Tressa Bern demonstrates an effortless (well, it looks effortless) ability to get inside the head of Arthur’s grieving mother.
But Beane’s one-note neurotic angst in his acting and directing make this "King John" much ado about nothing.
Anthony Del Valle can be reached at vegastheater firstname.lastname@example.org. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.REVIEW
What: "The Life and Death of King John"
When: 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday
Where: The Plaza, 1 South Main St.
Tickets: $22.99-$32.99 (772-3897; insurgotheater.org)