A bare-bones Bard

"King John" will be staged in the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival much as it was back in the day - sans director, scenic or sound designer, or any modern "frill."


'Lord, what fools these mortals be!" Shakespeare writes in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and given how he operated in the theater of his day, he could have been referring to the way plays are done today. A costume designer!? Whoever heard of such a thing? Someone to plan . . . what is that word . . . lighting? Preposterous! And what is this director? Another foolish piece of nonsense, methinks.

The theater now has plenty of, as producers say, "creative-team members," but even the idea of a director would have been foreign before the 19th century. So it's an act of professional courage (plus a declaration of machismo) that the 17 cast members of King John, which opens Thursday at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival near Quakertown, signed on to do the play the way they did it back then.

No director. No scenic designer. No lighting master. Certainly no sound designer, and no electronic sound. And forget about three-plus weeks of rehearsal time - you have four days to get it together. The fifth will be a preview (no, Shakespeare's casts didn't have one, but we won't stand on ceremony), and the sixth is Thursday night's opening.

Find your costumes in your closet, on your friends, or in the festival storage areas. Use whatever set is on the stage (it was for The Tempest) or not, plus three heavy scenic rocks sitting around somewhere from that show. Make your own live sound effects, pick weaponry from the prop shop or get props yourself. Figure out stage moves, who comes and goes at what spots, and choose interpretations that work. Come to the first rehearsal knowing your lines. Either it'll all be a comedy of errors or, you know, all's well that ends well.

Whatever it is, it's surely not much ado about nothing - this commando form of producing Shakespeare is challenging and possibly terrifying, except that there's no trembling time.

"It takes guts to do this," and fear "is the only appropriate emotional response," says a wryly smiling Patrick Mulcahy, producing artistic director of the festival, which made a first foray into the process last season with Two Noble Kinsmen. That play contains a feast; having no resources for one, the actors chose to signify it with a paper bag from McDonald's. It worked beautifully.

"Original practice" is the academic term for such theater. The movement suggests that you produce theater as it was done when the play was written - even though we lack specifics about the process when the Bard was cranking them out.

"Cranking out" may be an arguable term for King John, but try reading it: The disjointed history play covers 17 years of John's reign over England, his war with France, the way he made the church pay for it, and a bitter family feud over who rightfully gets to sit on the throne. It has no identifiable hero.

"This is not an 'original practice' production, literally," Mulcahy says. "We're not trying to emulate in every way what Shakespeare was doing. We want to get at the spirit, and the palpable excitement people experienced in Shakespeare's time - the feeling that no one's sure what's going to happen." He stresses that the process wouldn't work without a bang-up cast, which he has assembled.

No one can stage Shakespeare for modern audiences without at least some judicious editing and, depending on the play, such editing can be the literary equivalent of heart surgery. Mulcahy himself knifed Shakespeare's convoluted Antony and Cleopatra into shape three seasons back, and he's done the same for King John, along with Erin Hurley, a festival director. The actors got the script in April, and reported to work Friday, ready to roll.

Mulcahy stood before them with marching orders in the festival's Schubert Theatre, where the play unfolds. He'd e-mailed tips and procedures (largely about what would not be available to them) and stressed a few. "I will stop talking now," he said after only a few minutes, "because I've just taken up one percent of your rehearsal time."

Stage manager Stacy Renee Norwood was there as a resource and to make sure the cast observed Actors' Equity breaks - time-outs mandated by the union - but would not manage the cast. She said later that the actors stood in a circle, began talking about the play, and almost organically started to block movements. "It's amazing what comes out of this," she said, having done it last season.

By Friday's end, the cast had gone through the entire play. Several battles are called for offstage, so "we were grabbing weapons, blowing trumpets, beating on drums, smacking swords together, and then we all said, oh, that sounds all right," said veteran Philadelphia-based actor Greg Wood, who plays King John. What was left to do was refinement, plus the repetition that would turn the actors into, they hoped, a jelled ensemble.

Plus the costumes.

Early Saturday afternoon, the cast assembled inside the theater, then moved through a back hallway and into the costume storage areas. They knew what they wanted and, in some cases, what their colleagues were looking for.

"A jacket might just tell the story," said one to another. "Belts?" offered a costume handler there to help. "Belts are in the closet." To the closet - actually a walk-in room - several actors headed.

Leo Bond, who plays the Earl of Salisbury, climbed up a ladder and sifted through about 100 belts on high hooks. "Belt color is supposed to match suit color, right?" he asked. "That would be good," answered Ian Bedford, an actor seen at the festival, on Philadelphia stages, and as a part of last year's Two Noble Kinsmen. Bedford plays a key role - Philip the Bastard - and most of his costume would come from home. Philip is "never quite dressed right, like everything else about him," Bedford said, "so I chose a suit jacket with a patch - it has a patch because it was ripped."

In another building's storage area, large plastic bins of hats sat one atop another. Two were labeled "pillbox military hats," another offered "military soft hats," and still others,"fencing masks" and "sailors berets and caps." Brendan Moser, a young actor who plays King John's nephew, was happy with the uniform he came across so that he could hide as a shipboy, as Shakespeare directs. The label inside it cataloged its provenance. "Drunken sailor," it said, "Guys and Dolls."

Meanwhile, Richard B. Watson, playing a cardinal, was in full regalia, down to the gloves. He'd brought in the costume. "My friend is a collector of items, and when I was cast in this role I immediately called him up. He even had archbishop's shoes," said Watson, lifting his red robe to reveal decorated footwear that, remarkably, fit.

Susan Riley Stevens, also highly visible on Philadelphia stages, originally thought a shawl would mark her as Constance, King John's rival. (In real life Wood, who plays King John, is her husband.) She shelved the shawl idea once she found a donation to the festival, an expressive dress with a swirly pattern.

"This is totally easy," said Eric Hissom, who plays France's King Philip. "I mean, four days to put it together - come on!" Hissom was only half-joking; for a Washington, D.C., company that gave the cast one day, period, he'd played the same role. "What's the odds of that happening? No one ever does this play."

Which is a reason the festival hopes people will come, along with the challenging process. Artistry and quality is "what drives our thinking in everything we do," says Mulcahy, the festival leader. "It's all about trying to make every aspect of a production perfect. Given that, we put so much energy and attention into getting every detail into place . . ." He paused. "And then, to do this!"


Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter.