King John is unlikely to turn up in a Top 10 list of best-loved Shakespeare plays. Parts of it could use a rewrite, and the Bard improved thusly in subsequent dramas. It's not performed too often, and bits and pieces of its historical underpinnings were exploited more lustily in The Lion in Winter.
Cliff Notes may exist for the title, gathering dust on campus store shelves, as students probably aren't asked too often to tackle the piece. Worse, while even the esteem-challenged Titus Andronicus gets a splashy big screen version with Oscar-winning stars (guaranteeing it some broader appeal beyond the boards), the last person to attempt a feature film of King John was actor-director Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree in 1899. Try finding that at your local Blockbuster.
A vigorous new revival of King John by Theatre for a New Audience, which runs at The American Place Theatre in New York City through February 20, makes a good case for the neglected monarch. Under the fierce light designed by Christopher Akerlind, a strong cast largely composed of TFANA veterans marches through thickets of sometimes unwieldy text like an army on the move, knives at the ready. This suitably stark staging, directed by Karin Coonrod, summons contemporary chords from 13th century skullduggery that is typically more at home on The History Channel than at an Off-Broadway house.
One modern touch in this retelling of 800-year-old political turbulence in none-too-merry Olde England is provided by actor Ned Eisenberg, who portrays King John with a dash of gangland panache (think Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar, or, when John rails against the church, Al Pacino in The Godfather Part III). Offstage, Eisenberg, a stalwart of the 21-year-old TFANA, sounds less like the coolly calculating British politico he plays than, well, the guy he is, a native of the Riverdale section of the Bronx. "Yeah, hi -- good day from His Majesty," he quips.
"I don't know if the gangland interpretation was a fully conscious choice on my part, though I must admit that with a lot of these Shakespeare plays I see a correlation with the gangster movies of today," says Eisenberg. "The nature of the leaders in these plays is criminal, in a way; they're schizophrenic and off-balance, and the use of violence is just part of their way of doing things, as it is in the underworld today. I suppose I gave it some of that spin because it's there, though I'm not trying to do any particular movie character and I don't want it to sound like I am." In this in-the-round staging, the actor spends part of each performance seated next to an audience member, who is inevitably surprised to be in the company of a wary monarch dressed in an ominous-looking chain-mail vest. "The idea to do it like this was Karin's," says Eisenberg, who participated in a workshop of the play last summer. "I wasn't sure how much we'd like it; as an actor, when you're not on, you want to go backstage, relax, and not have that close a connection to the audience for the entire performance. But now that we've done it, it's very freeing. It takes the onus off of each entrance; you're there with them, participating in the experience."
Eisenberg's first encounter with King John actually did come in the classroom, "in what seems like many, many, many years ago, when I was in the dramatic writing program at NYU." But, like other students, "I'd never heard of it. It was part of a grouping of plays we were assigned to read, and I wrote a paper about it. I recall finding it very interesting." How so? "Personally, I don't know any people who make these bids for power, go over and murder a bunch of people because they want to control a territory, and have their nephews killed," he laughs. "But that does go on today in third-world countries ruled by warlords. It has relevance."
Rehearsals for King John unfolded over six weeks. "With Shakespeare, you concentrate on getting the pronunciation right, and also on not getting bogged down in the language. Performing it may seem exhausting, but it's actually been exhilarating to do. I must say that the chain-mail costume [by P.K. Wish] helps me get into the battle every performance, though -- as stunning as it looks -- I'm not sure I'd trust it against real arrows and maces," he jokes.
Despite an affable New York-ness, Eisenberg does have the look of someone who bears close watching, which may be part of the reason why "I get all these lunatics to play." In director Julie Taymor's acclaimed staging of Titus Andronicus for TFANA a few seasons back, he appeared as the shifty Saturninus. "What is it with me and these wild kings? I don't know, you know?" he exclaims. "But I'm not complaining."
When King John ends its reign at The American Place Theatre, Eisenberg and some of his onstage subjects will decamp for Broadway and the Cort Theatre, where Taymor's TFANA production of Carlo Gozzi's comic fairy tale The Green Bird is being remounted, starting April 1. Wearing "a fat suit, I'm huge," Eisenberg, along with King John co stars and fellow TFANA vets Derek Smith (The Bastard) and Bruce Turk (Louis the Dauphin), appeared in Taymor's 1996 staging of the 1765 play, and all are Broadway-bound, joined by Katie MacNichol, who plays Blanche, and the French and English messengers, in the Shakespeare play. "I had never seen any of Julie's work before I appeared in Titus Andronicus and I was just so impressed; it's magnificent working with her."
Offstage, Eisenberg will soon be seen in an HBO movie, "Cheaters," and an episode of the TV show "Wonderland." He also did "a little cameo action" for his nephews, filmmakers Adam Marcus and Kipp Marcus, in a Sundance entry, "Snow Days," where he plays "a nutty guy who does standup comedy." "Sopranos" fans spotted him last year, though not, surprisingly, as a thug. "It was a great role: I played a Hasidic hotel owner who got the hell beaten out of him by some mobsters. I stood my ground, until they threatened to castrate me."
The actor has been in worse trouble. In 1981, he played Eddy, a horny camper in distress, in a stalk-and-slash thriller called "The Burning." The "Friday the 13th" xerox is notable for two things: A cast that went onto greater distinction elsewhere, and its status as the first-ever Miramax production. "Oh, yeah, we were a long way off from 'Shakespeare in Love,'" he laughs. "But the people who were in it, all starting out -- Holly Hunter, Fisher Stevens, and Jason Alexander -- just a great cast, and I'm still friends with a lot of them. And my death scene was just spectacular - stabbed in the throat with garden shears, then just completely ripped apart."
Golden memories aside, Eisenberg says it's good to be the king. "All in all, I think I'm happier doing this at this point," he deadpans.