Thursday, September 22, 2016

"King Charles III"

King Charles III
Mike Bartlett

Robert Joy as Charles
What is it about us Americans that we have such a fascination with the very Crown and its royals that almost 250 years ago we fought a revolution to escape?  And when we hear the accented speech of that faraway Isle, why do we tend to go gaga and give immediate credence to whoever is speaking?  Whatever the reasons, Mike Bartlett’s 2015 Olivier winning play, King Charles III, that is now opening the American Conservatory Theatre’s 50th season has all the ingredients to wow its San Francisco audiences.  The Windsor family members we have glued ourselves to see on TV screens at all hours of the night during weddings and funerals are all there (Charles, Camilla, Princes William and Harry, Duchess Kate, and even Princess Diana).  There is near-scandal and open rebellion; inside scoop from within the thick walls of Buckingham Palace and raucous debates of shouting ministers inside Parliament; and a bad boy prince, an adored angel’s ghost, and two royal wives full of ambition for their would-be-king husbands.  What more can we Americans ask for at a time when we are universally OD’d with the daily disappointments of our own, current election cycle?

With a requiem mass echoing majestically all around them, the “future history” play opens with the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II and a line-up of royals stoically mourning with no shown emotion.  William, who confides to us that  “my life has been a lingering for the throne,” has his first official meeting with the Prime Minister – a meeting where he discovers two bits of news that do sit well at all in the head that is soon to be resident of the kingdom’s crown.  As it turns out, as king it is his constitutional duty to sign all bills passed by Parliament even if he disagrees with them; and the first one looking for his pen and putting new restrictions on the freedom of the press is one he immediately dislikes in no uncertain terms.  The fact that he refuses to do what his mother always did and just sign on the dotted line leads to unforeseen repercussions in the hallowed halls of Parliament, in the streets outside his very palace’s walls, and in the sanctuary of his own family’s quarters.  The ultimate outcome of his noble stand based his notion of historical role of his to-be nobility becomes a script with twists he does not foresee – especially when his former wife returns in ghostly form to declare to him, “You’ll be the greatest king we’ve ever had.”

With reddened eyes deep set that join with bushy eyebrows expressively to emote their own emotion, passion, and determination, Robert Joy brings to stage life a Charles that may surprise an audience who will attempt to compare him to the real-life Charles we have watched waiting in the shadows for years finally to rule.  This Charles is forthright and daring and is willing to push beyond boundaries his mother never crossed in order to make his opinions known.  He is animated with waving hands and shows alacrity of full body movement as he makes clear his points and presses his questions for understanding the ins and outs of a constitution that is sometimes more tradition-defined than chronicled in ink. With a voice that can ring with new-found authority as well as embrace with heart-felt affection, he also carries a face that maps in its well-worn grooves years of waiting and preparation for this very moment and lights up in color and brilliance as his courage to act increases.  Mr. Joy is stellar in these and a dozen more dimensions that all add up to a performance near perfect. 

Around him is a cast full of actors who each bring authenticity, intrigue, and individual nuance to their characters.  In contrast to his father’s fully expressed passions, tall and handsome Prince William (Christopher McLinden) is much more reserved, almost statuesque, and quite formal -- at least until the ambition of his wife persuades him to rev up his gears to fuller velocity.  His brother, Prince Harry, is in the mold of Prince Hal of Shakespeare fame and of the reputation of the real Harry Windsor we read about in the tabloids.  Harry Smith is outstanding in his rambunctious, rebellious rendering of a prince who wants out of palace walls and their age-old expectations and instead wants a life of fast food restaurants, a suburban home, and a possible wife from a no-name family.

The women paired with all three of the royal men are great contrasts among themselves, each being a power and influence behind her man.  Michelle Beck is a nightclub surprise meet-up for Harry named Jessica who immediately besots him in ways that even surprise her.  She brings a confidence of her own self, an inherent depth of wisdom and intuition, and a sense of street-learned adventure (as well as a lot of sexy instincts to match and play well into Harry’s hormonal risings). 

Jeanne Paulsen is the loyal, quick-to-defend wife of Charles, Camilla, a step-mother clearly not that loved and only tolerated by Diana’s sons.  Her non-royal but quite gentrified bloodline shows in her perfectly poised dignity, exacting speech spoken from deep in the throat, and definite opinions about her husband’s legitimacy to assert his kingly rights.  

Rounding out this female trio is Kate (Allison Jean White), the Cinderella bride of William whom all the country seems to adore.  Kate has the ability to hide behind her beauty a calculating, no-holes-barred ability to do whatever necessary to be sure the next king and queen will be whom she believes they should be.

Three others are pulling puppet strings to manipulate to their desired outcome Charles’ decision not to sign the press freedom bill.  Ian Merrill Peakes is Prime Minister Evans who comes to have tea and a perfunctory weekly chat with the new king-to-be and walks away with neck reddened, veins popping, and hands in frozen grips of frustration.  His chief rival in Parliament, opposition leader Mr. Stevens (Bradford Farwell), is all smiles in his confidential suggestions of tactics to a grateful Charles but shows his sleazy side as politician as he loudly opposes the next throne’s inhabitant when put in front of cameras, press, and fellow politicians.  And with hints of treachery akin to Othello’s Iago, James Reiss (Dan Hiatt) is Charles’ palace secretary who carries behind his all-seeing, always-judging, tight-faced countenance the willingness to betray for a good he sees greater than personal loyalty.  All three of these veteran actors play their parts to the hilt in convincing, conniving manners.

Every aspect of this stunning production by a stellar, creative team of artists is worthy of headline accolades.  Daniel Ostling’s set is massively impressive with its kingly statues looking down from their high-perched alcoves onto the arch-filled walls of an inner Buckingham hall.  Lap Chi Chu’s lighting design is flawless in execution and regal in its results as eyes are shifted to catch singular stage moments or are opened wide to take in full-stage, lusciously lit grandeur. 

Without a doubt, the play would lose much of its overall sense of awe without the original music and design by Mark Bennett as the sounds of ceremony, protest, and parliamentarians all surround and engulf with crystal clarity at the needed times.  The costumes of every day life and royal proceedings have been magnificently generated by Jennifer Moeller’s imagination and impeccable sense of style.  Finally, the moments of tension and tenderness, of suspense and surprise, and of tough calls and tough love masterfully come to be due to the directorial prowess of David Muse.

And as if all the above indicators were not enough for even the casual reader to run to the nearest computer or phone to get a ticket for King Charles III before all the ACT slots sell out, get ready for the icing on the royal cake.  Mike Bartlett’s brilliant script is largely written in the Bard’s own iambic pentameter verse – full of the kinds of metaphors, unique phrasings, colorful words, and even occasional rhymed couplets that the Master’s audiences always love.  When delivered by the phenomenal cast of the American Conservatory Theatre, the music of Shakespeare sings through in the telling of a tale that William himself would surely have been proud to pen.

Rating: 5 E

King Charles III continues through October 9, 2016, on the Geary Stage of the American Conservatory Theatre, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at  415-749-2228.

Photos Credit:  Kevin Berne

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