This weekend at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, Shakespeare for the Masses will present a special production of “King John,” a play they feel is especially topical surrounding the Jan. 20 Inauguration of president-elect Donald Trump.
In “King John,” the English king’s claim to the throne is challenged by his nephew Arthur, who is influenced by his mother Constance and backed by the French king. War, shifting loyalties, and power plays ensue, raising the question: What makes a leader fit to rule?
Shakespeare for the Masses, now in its eighth season, adapts Shakespearean works into shorter, comical versions. This weekend’s performance will star veteran performers Chris Roberts, Jill Macy, Xavier Powers, Brooke Hardman Ditchfield, and Rob Myers as well as newcomers Harold Lawry, Steve Vaughan, and Abby Dickson.
The Times caught up with Shakespeare for the Masses founders Nicole Galland and Chelsea McCarthy via email to discuss: Why King John? And why now?
“King John” is a pretty chaotic play. There’s a lot going on. How did you pare it down to Shakespeare for the Masses length?
Nicole Galland: When we first pared it down for performance, four years ago, we chose the material that we were most interested in performing — Constance’s speeches and the scenes with Hubert are some of the best stuff Shakespeare ever wrote, in my humble opinion, and we focused on those. On the other hand, the incredibly complicated geopolitical stuff, we cut that way back and gave most of it to the narrator to summarize, because that made it both clearer and funnier.
Chelsea McCarthy: “King John” is one of the original plays that we talked about when we were creating Shakespeare for the Masses. It’s a show you don’t often see performed because Shakespeare knew that his audience understood the insanely complicated backstory already, and consequently just throws the audience right into his story. Modern American audiences for the most part have no idea what’s going on. So what’s hilarious is that we had to add some of that complicated history back into the show. It took us years of practice before we felt ready to tackle “King John”!
Why did you decide to put on this production just before the Jan. 20 Inauguration?
NG: The parallels are almost eerie. King John and Donald Trump share many characteristics. We were actually planning to do this right after the election, but I had a family emergency that made it impossible to commit to last-minute rewrites. It turned out to be good we’d postponed it, because we were too depressed and freaked out after the election to make jokes. I wouldn’t have felt right making light of anything that week.
CM: It was so great to realize “King John” was going to fit into Inauguration week perfectly — King John has three coronations over the course of the show!
You mentioned the play is topical right now because of its parallels to the 2016 presidential election. Where in the plot, themes, and characters do you see those parallels?
NG: Wow, where to begin! It’s a story about two unpopular candidates vying for the same seat of power who go about trying to gain it in nasty, ugly, questionable ways that end up in a contested conclusion. One of them is a flamboyant, shameless, thin-skinned narcissist who genuinely feels justified in doing whatever he wants and never wants to take responsibility for anything. His opponent is a mere boy, but the boy himself isn’t ambitious — his mother is ambitious on his behalf. So you have a narcissist battling a strong woman who has an understandable attitude of entitlement. The English lords are a little like the Republican party, trying to figure out how best to deal with this person whom they need to both control and curry favor with, often to the detriment of their own integrity and dignity.
CM: It’s also interesting to see how all of the kings, lords, and politicians publicly and loyally throw their support behind one candidate, only to seconds later publicly and loyally throw their support behind the other for myriad reasons — mostly self-gain.
One of the most interesting comparisons I drew was the search for the rightful heir to the throne in “King John,” and how it relates to our national push for a recount, and assertions from some Americans that they would not recognize Trump as “my president.” Can you speak to this?
NG: Many of the characters don’t recognize John as “my king” — that’s half the plot. They take that position because there is another candidate for the position who they believe has a better claim to the throne, and according to one method of accounting, they are correct. We didn’t mention the recount, but we do have some electoral college comments.
CM: And the characters who don’t think King John is their king go to great lengths to get him off the throne, like making alliances with foreign powers and causing wars.
Has Shakespeare for the Masses done this sort of thing before — adapting a play to mirror current events?
NG: Not really, but we staged one iteration of Macbeth so that the Macbeths imitated the royal family surrounding the wedding of Prince William. I’d be on board for doing it again, though, and I bet Chelsea agrees.
CM: This is the first time we’ve done an adaptation that is so specific, and it’s been a blast. But really, we’re Shakespeare nerds, so we’re open to anything that helps us tell his stories.
Why do you think Shakespeare for the Masses is a good vehicle to help us examine current events?
CM: Really, Shakespeare is the Baskin-Robbins of political drama — “Julius Caesar,” “Coriolanus,” anything with “Henry” in the title …
NG: In a way, we’re already set up for such a thing. We’re already doing parody and satire, which is an excellent way to comment on current events.
“King John” at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse: Sat. Jan. 14 at 7 pm and Sun. Jan. 15 at 1 pm. Free; donations welcome. For more information, visit mvplayhouse.org.