There's a bit of artsy pretension in director Jan Powell's addition of a character named the Figure of Human Potential to Richmond Shakespeare's "King John," playing at St. Catherine's School's McVey Theatre. But any disdain you might feel for this affectation will be forcefully blown away by the muscular sexiness Ryan Bechard brings to the role and further obliterated by the visceral expressiveness Powell incorporates into the whole enterprise.
As she showed with last season's "Macbeth," Powell has a great talent for heightening the already elevated emotions in Shakespeare's work. And while "King John" isn't as familiar as many of the Bard's titles, it's filled to overflowing with the stuff that makes his dramas great: larger-than-life characters struggling with impossible decisions, intense conflicts between royalty and humanity, and refreshing doses of wit.
The titular king, played with royal relish by Thomas Cunningham, has taken control of the English crown. But French King Philip (Jeremy Gershman) challenges his legitimacy, asserting that pre-adolescent Prince Arthur (David Millman) is the rightful heir to the throne. Just as an agreement is worked out between these superpowers, the church intervenes, embodied by the Cardinal Pandulf (Christopher Dunn). The manipulative clergyman incites a conflict that encompasses Spain and Austria; motivates an ill-fated, quickie wedding; and, this being Shakespeare, results in lots of dead bodies.
The plot's machinations are complicated, so prepare to be confused. But don't let confusion distract you from some exceptional performances. David Janosik commands attention — and steals every scene he's in — as Philip the Bastard, a knight made crass by his illegitimacy but who finds honor as King John's strongest supporter. As Prince Arthur's scheming mother, Jennifer Frank gives a harrowing portrayal of sorrow later in the play. And as the young Prince's not-quite-protector, Hubert, Thomas Bell renders a personal struggle between loyalty and newfound affection with painful honesty.
The interpersonal intrigue is well-balanced by many explosive scenes of stage violence, vividly choreographed by Bechard. A fine technical crew anchors the occasionally rowdy production, with Brittany Simmons and Alecia Schulz collaborating on a haunting sound design, and Stacie Rearden Hall's colorful makeup designs helping audiences keep track of who's on whose side. Todd Schall-Vess's expansive set design uses simple platforms to give the boxy St. Catherine's stage a captivating sense of depth and height. Constantly stalking the action is Powell's preternatural Figure, a testament to the tremendous potential in Shakespeare's rarely staged "King John," artfully realized in this production. S
"King John" plays in the McVey Theatre at St. Catherine's School, 6001 Grove Ave., through Sunday, Oct. 14. $12-22. For information, call 838-8006 or go to richmondshakespeare.com.