You can't normally do a Shakespeare play and get points for obscurity. So, kudos. Yahoo. King John is neither as well known, nor as rich, as the warhorse plays, but it does have a scene where a young boy, who is going to have his eyes burned out with a red-hot poker, pleads his way out of the torture (only to later die accidentally). It is also the source of the idiom "gild the lily," though the actual line is "To gild refined gold, to paint the lily... is wasteful and ridiculous excess."
The action in King John is violent but the dialogue is swollen with politics—how a single town frustrated two warring kingdoms, how a marriage reconciled them, and how the pope set them fighting again. The play begins with Faulconbridge the Bastard (yes) suing his legitimate brother for a chunk of his inheritance. King John and his mother Queen Elinor suggest the Bastard drop his claim to lesser nobility and land and reinvent himself as the bastard son of the famous King Richard I, the Lion Heart. The Bastard eagerly agrees. "Some sins do bear their privilege on earth," he crows, and follows the King to a newly brewing war with France.
Too often, cross-casting and gender reversals rest on their gimmicky liberal laurels, but this all-female company makes a convincing team that tears up the stage (more so in the first half than the second), and the actors have been well-tuned to each other by director Rosa Joshi. They listen and react with precision, bent on clarity above all else in telling this unfamiliar tale. Amy Thone is righteously regal as King John and Betsy Schwartz nails Arthur, the pipsqueak of the burn-out-your-eyes scene. Jennifer Zeyl's set reflects the play's gamesmanship, resembling a long, narrow checkerboard of brushed metal, stained with blood; the audience flanks the stage, looking down from high perches, like judges at a tennis match. A little indoor tennis between King John and his French rival would have made a very good production very, very good. Maybe next time.
The sins of the earth bear altogether stranger fruit in Passport, Bret Fetzer's new series of eight short plays about love, lust, and misunderstanding. Each playlet happens on a different continent (the final one is the final frontier) and all have Fetzer's characteristic fairy-tale flavors: fantastic elements (talking vultures, a German filmmaker wandering haplessly across Antarctic glaciers), recurring themes (hot air balloons, church choirs), and language that is poetic ("I don't blame the lion for eating the antelope, the dandy for plucking a mum for his buttonhole") and occasionally overwrought ("the heat is leaching every fluid my body creates").
More to the point, they're morality tales. Some have trite lessons, like Money Won't Make You Happy or Love the One You're With. Others have weird ones, like Breaking Your Brother's Heart Is Much Worse Than Just Letting Him Have Sex with That Monkey. The best are more enigmatic, snapshots of desperate moments, broadcasting some instructive code that we can't decrypt—like the meditations of the teenage Christian waiting to give anonymous blowjobs in a truck-stop restroom and the story of the dumbstruck Russian astronaut, drifting in space, listening to a woman on earth declare her love, over and over, in a language he doesn't understand. (Both are standout performances by Mike Pham as the Christian and the astronaut.) With a threadbare set, no props but suitcases, and a youthful eight-person ensemble, watching Passport is like watching kids playing out fantasies about love up in the attic—where the wonder lives. And the monsters.
Rot, a "gothic comedy about love and monsters," is more about late-20s angst than anything else. It comes as a disappointment that angst is, in fact, the monster; I was hoping for a little zombie courtship or something. Solo performer-writer Juli Etheridge plays Elizabeth, who is on the cusp of turning 30 with a broken heart, writer's block, and a mother who specializes in making her daughter feel crappy about her childless, impoverished, go-nowhere life. ("Alternative weeklies are real papers," she insists, unconvincingly, into the telephone.) Etheridge alternates Elizabeth's musings on bars, best friends, and boyfriends with excerpts from the more fecund, but far more tragic, life of Mary Shelley—because the play is about building your own monster, you see. Most of the material will be all too familiar to twentysomethings drifting into mid-life crisis and probably not that interesting to anybody else. Rot's banal, beery laments aren't even interesting to this member of the play's target firstname.lastname@example.org