Boston’s culture aficionados are in for a rare treat this winter with Praxis Stage’s production of King John, Shakespeare’s obscurest play about the medieval king’s embattled succession to the English throne. Today, King John is remembered as the tyrannical king in Robin Hood tales, though he also signed the Magna Carta.
In Shakespeare’s King John (the poet’s “most explicitly political play”), Praxis’s director Kimberly Gaughan seeks something different for her focus. Her eye for truth about human behavior draws out the deeper John, the fully present John, so that audiences can feel a connection to him, a personal identification to his moods, his decisions, his strengths and weaknesses, and even his cruelty—for the bottom line is, he’s human, just like the rest of us. Political mayhem may indeed dominate the play’s twists and turns, but the Praxis production focuses on John, the man, the human being, and Gaughan brings her love and understanding for this character to his new incarnation.
To realize her vision of John, Gaughan asked native Bostonian actor, Michael Underhill, to play the role. The two had worked together on Commonwealth Shakespeare Company Stage2’s production of Romeo and Juliet last spring. Gaughan, the show’s assistant director, had been taken with Underhill’s sensitive portrayal of Tybalt—in fact, he was the best Tybalt she’d ever seen.
King John is now in rehearsal and opens January 30 at the Boston Center for the Arts, Calderwood Pavilion, for a two-week run. At a recent rehearsal at the Cottage House in Dorchester, Gaughan and Underhill talked about their experience, or their “journey,” delving ever deeper into this “whacky, weird play,” as Gaughan says, or as Underhill quips, “how does all of this happen in the same play?”
GS: Kim, how did you feel taking on a play with such a richness of timeless themes, but at the same time of such magnitude that your audience might grope for understanding?
KG: Actually, when I read the play, I was entranced and enamored with parts of it and not the whole. It seems like Shakespeare was starting and stopping, like he was writing scenes without continuity—he was all over the place. So, I was interested in that challenge—stitching together this series of vignettes. And I was worried about the history aspect, because in Shakespeare’s time, the audience understood the family trees and that whole world of the play, but here, today, we just don’t have that knowledge, we don’t have that understanding of “Plantagenets.” I knew that we needed to do very clear things that would make that background available to audiences, and we’re using some theatrical elements to tell the story—we’re telling it physically as much as with text, and trying to connect it to how humans relate to one another.
What I realized when I was working with the play and getting into the rehearsals, was that there was no sense in trying to rail on the play’s historicity. We had to make it about the actual humans who were involved. So, finding those parallels—and Shakespeare’s so timeless—finding those moments that seem so contemporary despite the language. That’s really what I focus on in breaking this down. And of course, I’ve cut a lot, I’ve streamlined a lot, to make it more cohesive. That being said, it’s still a jumble, but it’s really resonating as we work through it in rehearsals. There are all kinds of interpersonal connections and relationships that you can identify in any family. In many ways, it feels like a family drama and I want to explore that as much as possible. As for the play’s political parallels to today, the text itself is political enough and the parallels are there. I’ve never been one to beat down on a topic. I think subtlety is more incendiary in the long run.
GS: What’s been your process for directing the play?
KG: Well, there’s been a lot of reflection, of course. And this is my first time directing on my own. In the past, I’ve assisted, and in those situations, I was working on something that I had already worked on in some capacity, or seen many times. For instance, I was the assistant director on Romeo and Juliet, which Michael was in—that’s how we met—and that was a play I have a lot of opinions about and feel really close to, and if I were to do it, I already have a vision of it in my head. With King John, I didn’t have anything in place, and this is actually freeing, even though it’s also a bit overwhelming because there are so many possibilities. Even though the play might feel chaotic when you first encounter it, there’s actually a beautiful simplicity to it. It has a lot of complexity and moving parts, but within that there’s a thread running through it. The emotional journey these characters go on is complex, and no one in the play is “black or white,” but rather living in a gray area throughout the course of the show. We’re handling these characters with the sympathy and kindness that the productions I’ve looked at haven’t, and for me, the through line is that people are complicated. You can’t cast them aside for one thing or the other that they’ve done. We have to take everyone as they are.
So, back to my process, I read the play. I watched what versions were available to me. I read it again. I traveled a lot this summer on trains, which gave me time to sit and storyboard a few things, ideas that were then thrown out. I spent time thinking about who these people were. All of the productions I had seen were traditionally Shakespearean—very old guys talking in crisp voices about politics. I wasn’t connecting to them, I felt there was more in the play, an underbelly. I knew that John was going to be my focus. He’s my favorite character. I felt there’s always been an unsympathetic approach to him—such as his portrayal in Robin Hood—and even the Arden edition’s commentary—it’s quite snarky about John. I knew I needed someone who could give him a vulnerability and a sensitivity despite all the things that happen in the play. I was working with Michael on Romeo and Juliet when the King John project came up. He was playing Tybalt, and Michael’s Tybalt was the best Tybalt I’ve ever seen. And he didn’t have a lot of text; we didn’t focus on that story arc in the play. He brought such a sensitivity to his role—a care to it. I thought: he’d be a perfect King John. So, a lot of my process was finding John and what his world would be like.
GS: How did you discover your passion for directing and do you enjoy it more than acting?
KG: I really enjoy acting when it’s a part I’m excited about, which doesn’t happen much anymore. There are some roles I would jump at, but I find that directing is more satisfying. I’m a bit of a control freak, and as an actor, I’ve often been on the sidelines thinking, “Oh, I know what this scene needs! So, I finally got to explore that side of myself, and it’s been really fulfilling. I also had become a little disheartened, because I’d been in a lot of situations where I felt like the process of the play got away from the art, and that the people were more interested in the power dynamics of the project than the art. So, I was interested in creating an environment of kindness where people could explore their creativity.
GS: How are you bringing your personal vision to the play?
KG: The play’s contemporary, but it also has many influences going into it. Everyone’s bringing something to the table. Each actor brings something different, artistically, which changes and shifts everything. And from my perspective, I’m really interested in theater as a medium—how it’s different from film, how it’s different from television, and how we’re doing something that’s extremely theatrical that can remind people we’re in a communal space together. We’re sharing a moment—audience and actor—and there’s not the pretense of a fourth wall up between us. I’m really interested in how we can create a shared energy together. And so, my directing is not necessarily “how can we set this in 2020 and make it picture perfect with our contemporary times,” but instead, how can we evoke atmosphere, mood, and feeling that audiences can tie into with the willing suspension of disbelief. We want to create a cognitive experience where we set out to do one thing with a scene, but audience members see it and are reminded of something from their own lives—like a past experience of loss or grief. We have to remember that audiences are smart and the things that we do trigger ideas in them, so I’m interested in that creative sharing.
GS: What’s it like to direct Shakespeare in comparison to other playwrights?
KG: I think Shakespeare is, in many ways, easier for me because I’ve spent so much of my acting career doing it. I feel I have a very strong base—I’m confident doing Shakespeare. But I also feel with Shakespeare that we have so many notions, preconceived ideas about what it should be or what it needs to be, and these are very elevated. But I find many things in the plays that aren’t highbrow, that are just economical and simple, even though there’s all of the language, the poetry. So, resisting the urge to succumb to that, to what we think it is, is difficult. Directing any play is hard. You read it, you make an idea about it, and you think “this is what it is.” Then you get in the rehearsal room, and you have five bodies all talking, all contributing, and it’s totally different. So, it’s always hard.
GS: What’s it been like to work with your actors?
KG: It’s been a dream. We really put together an incredible group of people. I’ve worked with Michael before, so I knew that was going to go well, and I’m working again with David Picariello (he plays several roles in King John), with whom I had just been in Trayf this past fall with the New Repertory Theatre. Then, Daniel Boudreau and I quickly established a positive working relationship. So out of the eight were three I already knew and felt good about. I cast the others based on their auditions, and we really picked the most creative bunch of people I could’ve hoped for. Everybody jumps in all the time with wonderful ideas, and they’re so game to try new things. We have a really wonderful group.
GS: Michael, what’s it like to be an actor in the play, and the title role?
MU: I think a really challenging aspect of directing is the balance between having a strong artistic vision while also providing freedom and flexibility to the other artistic collaborators in the room, and that is the strength of this process with Kim. Everyone does have a voice, and we all know what field we’re playing on. Kim has set that vision for us. It’s a rarity to have that. I feel we have a really strong ensemble for this play, and there’s really no “lead role” in our production, partly because we have such a small cast and everyone shares the load equally. Everyone gets their moments to carry the play. One of the best characters in the play doesn’t even have a name—he’s “the citizen.” This sharing has been a delight for me, as it’s a lot to take on a title role. Yet it’s also been a blessing to jump into a process where I have more to do, where I’ve been lucky enough to work with a lot of larger theaters in town, in more ensemble type roles, with the opportunity to learn from a lot of artists I consider role models. To be able to take that learning and put it into practice is liberating. It’s been so great to work with King John, and with Kim’s guidance and blessing to really find the human being in him.
In some of my first broad strokes, my first-draft versions of John, he was unsympathetic—not someone that you’d want to spend two hours with. And now, I really do want to spend two hours with him, and I want to be sure audiences do too, and really take this journey with him and confront the same challenging situations and decisions he has to make throughout the play, whether the audience agrees with him or not. And that’s been a really fun challenge for me to play.
I also came to the play with no preconceived notion of King John, including his negative portrayal in Robin Hood. It’s really thrilling to do that, to come to a character without preconceived ideas. There’s something that you’re playing against with characters that have been done a million times. I definitely empathize with John. I think he embodies things that a lot of us deal with, such as the imposter syndrome, where you’re constantly seeking validation for what you’re doing, for the choices or decisions you’re making—wanting to know you’re worthy of your place and your time. We can all relate to that and empathize with John. That’s my job—to find the human in him, figure out why he makes certain decisions, not just whatthose decisions end up being.
GS: Could you share a bit about your acting career?
MU: Sure, I’ve been acting since I was fourteen. I grew up in Norwood and went to Northeastern University, graduating in 2010, and have been really fortunate to be working continuously in the area for the last decade. Lately I’ve been grateful for the opportunity to do a lot of Shakespeare, and it’s something I’ve really developed a strong attachment to, a kinship to, a relationship to the language and to the plays, and also bringing it to audiences. Two shows before King John that have been highlights for me were Cymbeline and Richard III for “Shakespeare on the Common,” for 5,000 people each night—an experience you won’t get anywhere else. Everyone has his or her own journey as an artist, as an actor, as whatever you’re pursuing, and it’s something that feels like home—when you’re in the rehearsal room or in the theater—that’s what you’re doing it all for—finding your way home. This is how I’ve approached my fifteen years of acting.
GS: What do you hope is the audience’s take-away watching this play?
MU: Well, King John is a play that not many in the audience have read of seen, or come to with any preconceived notions. I hope they come with curiosity and learn something about this play and the characters in it. I hope they have opinions about the characters and develop relationships with them—that they’re going on this journey with us, because there are so many things that happen in the play, so many surprises, so many left turns out of nowhere, and so many surprising decisions that the characters make. I just hope the audience is able to experience the same thing that we all experienced the first time we read through it and the first time we went through it in rehearsal and thought, “Oh my god, how does all of this happen in the same play?”
GS: Kim, what about you, do you have a special take-away for the audience?
KG: My biggest question when we started this was, does King John work as a play? A few months ago, I was with another theater artist before we started rehearsals, and I mentioned I would be directing John in the winter. He said, “That play doesn’t have an ending!” He was right, and so, I was dealing with those sorts of concerns. So, my big thing is, does King John work? I’m interested to hear what audiences think. Is it a play that’s worth doing? I feel it is. It’s a weird, whacky journey, but at the same time, it so simply confronts and explores humanity’s desire to connect. I want audiences to experience theater. I want it to be worth it for somebody to come to the theater and say, “That was a night well spent!” It should be different from sitting at home and watching a movie on TV. I want people to feel like it was a worthwhile endeavor, because they got something that they’re not going to get anywhere else.
Tickets and Information
Praxis Stage seeks to link theater with activism and produce plays that enter the current cultural and political conversations. The company cultivates a core of artists who burn to tell stories that both address injustice and imagine a more equitable and truly democratic society, while also pulling in new artists to enrich the programs. Praxis pays particular attention to productions with a diversity of identity and that showcase Boston’s born-and-raised talent. Its artists create enthralling theater that affects, moves, challenges, troubles, delights, and ultimately inspires audiences.