Review: Fixing King John by Rude Mechs
by Michael Meigs

The cast of Fixing King John (photo: Bret Brookshire)Kirk Lynn's script isn't Shakespeare. Fixing King John is a tight, fast story with dialogue full of fucking obscenities, one suited not for PBS but maybe to HBO.

E. Jason Liebrecht creates King John as an edgy, angry, powerful capo with the force of Jimmy Cagney and the morals of Tony Soprano.

Director Madge Darlington puts the Rude Mechs' staging into the confined space of their Off-Shoot rehearsal studio behind the Off-Center in east Austin. Audience members -- no, make that spectators, practically participants -- arrive to find the big room already milling with cast members in casual contemporary dress. The seating is equally casual around a central space that has the feel of a gym or a ring for a wrestling match. Risers on two sides of it feature a couple of high-placed rows of chairs for conventional seating with wide platforms below them, and across the playing space are wooden towers with plywood platforms to accommodate watchers. It's a makeshift settle-where-you-wish assemblage directly reminiscent of the Mechs' re-staging of Dionysus in 69 here in 2009 and 2012.

Lynn's reworking of the little-read (and less-acted) Shakespeare history play, written about 1590 but not mentioned in contemporary accounts or published until the 1623 Folio, is a drastic and coherent restructuring. He reduces a cast of 24 characters to one of 10, and he so reworks relations and plot elements that even if you'd actually read this neglected work you might not recognize it.

And the language! Though Lynn's first draft methodically rendered the original verse into pungent contemporary speech, his revisions and remakings fixed it so parallelisms all but disappeared. Take this example, from the opening scene:

King John
by William Shakespeare

Act I, Scene I, lines 1-25

Philip of France, in right and true behalf
Of thy deceased brother Geffrey’s son,
Arthur Plantagenet, lays most lawful claim
To this fair island and the territories,
To Ireland, Poictiers, Anjou, Touraine, Maine,
Desiring thee to lay aside the sword
Which sways usurpingly these several titles,
And put the same into young Arthur’s hand,
Thy nephew and right royal sovereign.

What follows if we disallow of this?

The proud control of fierce and bloody war,
To enforce these rights so forcibly withheld.

Here have we war for war and blood for blood,
Controlment for controlment: so answer France.CHAT.
Then take my King’s defiance from my mouth,
The farthest limit of my embassy.

Bear mine to him, and so depart in peace.
Be thou as lightning in the eyes of France;
For ere thou canst report, I will be there;
The thunder of my cannon shall be heard.
So hence! Be thou the trumpet of our wrath,
And sullen presage of your own decay.
An honorable conduct let him have.
Pembroke, look to’t. Farewell, Chatillion.

Exeunt Chatillion and Pembroke.

Fixing King John
by Kirk Lynn

Act I, Scene I

Everything you see is KING JOHN'S castle. And lookit, KING JOHN is on his throne. He looks gooood. He's the home team along with his mom, QUEEN ELINOR, and PEMBROKE, and anyone else you see. Anyone except that slick DAUPHIN, who's on a visit from France.

[. . . skipping to pg 2, from line 5]

[. . .] my father sent me here to tell you this:
Step aside! Stop pretending to be the great King of England, because really—truly it’s your nephew, Arfur, who has the most reason to pretend that game. Whoop! We're telling you to step aside and let Arfur be the next King——of England, Ireland, Poitiers, Anjou, Touraine, Maine and all that. All that. And now forget I was the King of France, pretending——and now pretend I’m every single one of the citizens who live in every single one of those shitholes in your kingdom I just listed, paying taxes, sleeping, making love on one another, dying and all that and listen as we say to you: Take off your hat. Take off your hat and put it on Arfur’s head. We’ll all be happier when you do.

If Arfur wants my crown he’s gonna hafta come back from the grave and chop off my head to get it, ‘cause I’ll kill a motherfucker today just for scheduling a thought like that tomorrow. Fuck Arfur. Tell Philip that. Then what?

Total fucking all-out war. Whoop, whoop! And it’s not just gonna be people dressed in high fashion from France coming at you with army swords. No. Cuz we’re not trying to take the throne from England. We’re just trying to give it to the best English guy for the job. So you’re gonna have people attacking you that dress like you, and talk like you, and look like you, and cousins, and nephews, and sisters, and anybody who ever disagreed with a tax, or a law, or a decree they didn’t like coming after you. So you can see, that’s a hard fucking war to win.

All right. You tell France I just said, ‘All right.’ What’s that in French? Just to say, ‘Great. Let’s do it. Fuck you. No big deal.’ I ain’t afraid to kill French people. I ain’t afraid to kill ANYBODY that comes after me. Say that to Philip. Like, no big deal. All right. What’s that in French? Like, ‘No biggie.’ You gotta a phrase for that?

Look in my mouth. You imagine you’re a great King? You got a good imagination. Look in my mouth and see my king’s response pouring out at you like a sewer. The nastiest shit you can imagine just pumping from my heart, up outta my mouth all over your stupid costume and your fake throne and filling up this fucking wayside inn you call a castle till you drown in our bile. Fuck you, too.

I want you outta my country quick like lightning, and by the time you get home to your little fucking poodle farm you’re gonna hear the thunder of my cannons blowing up your home, your mom, your dad, your brothers and sisters, your dog. BOOM. You’re like the tip of the sword I’m gonna put in King Philip's mouth and keep pushing ‘til he feels the hilt of it on his chin. Pembroke?

Well said.

Shut up, Pembroke. I'm gonna trust you with this snake. Make sure he gets aimed straight back to France, as quick as can be. And Dauphin? Remember what I said. 'Let’s do it. Fuck you. No big deal.'
See you later, DAUPHIN. See you later, PEMBROKE.

Lynn's thoughtful note in the program describes his composition process , and on their website the Mechs in their characteristic irreverent, ironic style state, "In some ways, we're offering you a more authentic experience of what a new Shakespeare play might be like than an actual Shakespeare play. In other ways, not so much."

After all, Elizabethan playwrights borrowed liberally from one another and freely reworked earlier works. G.B. Harrison identifies Shakespeare's source as a two-part anonymous work printed in 1591 titled The Troublesome Raigne of John King of England and reprinted in 1611 with the addition of the words 'Written by W. Sh.' -- "a dishonest attempt to pass it off as Shakespeare's work." (Maybe some of it was Shakespeare's work, considering that Harrison writes at length about the uneven quality of the accepted text of King John.)

If you want to judge for yourself, you could read the play. For a meticulous comparison of the play's events with the actual reign of John (1199-1216) and a scholarly discussion of Shakespeare's sources and text, see Isaac Asimov's 46 pages in his Guide to Shakespeare. Or, you know, what? Who cares? No big deal. All right. Nobody reads it or performs it anyhow, at least not the way it's written. The first recorded performance in London wasn't until, like, 1737. The Victorians liked it and performed it a lot. They were into Empire and glory, especially the Bastard's concluding speech, "This England never did, nor never shall,/ Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror." Performances since then: nada. Or anyhow, almost none.

What Lynn and the company do brilliantly is to capture the thrill of the clash of character and the excitement of stage action. The dialogue surprises initially with its apparent crudity -- the Mechs website quotes the Statesman review commenting that they brought the original "vibrantly and hilariously (back) to life" -- but it brilliantly establishes these characters and puts into their foul mouths imagery that reaches for truth in heightened language. Okay, make that poetry. Hoo-hoo.

Robert Faires, Robert S. Fisher, E. Jason Liebrecht (photo: Bret Brookshire)

Like, when French forces are attacking and John wants to accept the Cardinal's advice to abjure the crown and live a holy life in the forest, he says,

My mother used to put us to sleep with stories about Uncle Richard hunting honey in the forests. The way he tracked it down was to take a cup in one hand and a book in the other and use 'em to catch a bee on a flower. Then he'd walk off a ways and let it go, so he could see which direction the bee flew home. Then he'd walk in that direction for a while, slowly, until he caught another bee and did the same, and so on and so on, until soon enough he'd be close enough to hear the hive buzzing in an old tree trunk, or in the carcass of lion or whatever——jammed so full of honey it would just ooze out of the knotholes and nostrils.

That's not in Shakespeare.

Or in the final scene, when John's been poisoned by intimate treachery, he groans,

Back up. Your breath's too hot. No one else is punishing me like this. I'm like a ship at sea and my sail’s so torn up, all I have left to catch the wind is a single thread, and I’m so sensitive right now that I can feel your breath pushing me off the edge of the world. Who's gonna be king after me?

In King John's last moments as Lady Blanche feeds him a spoonful of honey, he's astonished by the taste of it and her comment that the royal pantries have been amply stocked with it all along.

Liebrecht's listed as a Mech company member, though we haven't seen much of him because he's been off touring with his Intergalactic Nemesis. Lowell Bartholomee's there as John's opponent King Philip, as is Robert Fisher as the Dauphin, but notably absent are Thomas Graves and Hannah Kennah (currently performing in Bulgaria). Darlington's invitation of non-Mechs into the cast makes this less of an inside job and more of a notable all-Austin event. She pairs Tom Green and Robert Faires, both tall, bald, bespectacled and lanky, as the Bastard and his brother the Cardinal; she brings Barbara Chisholm on board as the ambitious Lady Constance and Jeff Mills as the inept heir Arthur (derisively spelled 'Arfur' in the script). Slim, forceful Adriene Mischler, seen with Breaking String, Paper Chairs and the Salvage Vanguard takes the key role of Blanche, John's love and nemesis.

And Lynn lets them personalize it, especially with their deaths:

Each member of the cast says, as honestly as is available to him or her, how he or she would have preferred dying, if not in this battle. They say with whom, where, at what age, after what accomplishments, etc.

Here's mine for a model: "I would have liked to have died at 90 or so, sitting outside in a chair in the hill country, deer hunting not too seriously, reading a book, smoking a cigar. If I hadn't died in this battle."

Instead of breaking the illusion, these post-mortem comments reinforce it, opening the hearts of the actors.

A wild ride, two hours or so including the intermission, Fixing King John doesn't so much fix/repair an inferior script as fix/set in our imaginations a portrait and a fable relevant to our own day, struggling mightily in contemporary American speech for meaning.

Highly recommended.


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Fixing King John
by Kirk Lynn
Rude Mechs

November 07 - November 24, 2013
Off Center
2211-A Hidalgo Street
near Robert Martinez and E. 7th Street, behind Joe's Bakery
Austin, TX, 78702