Lurching through one of the Bard's lesser works

For the fifth installment in its ``See All of Shakespeare'' marathon, the New York Shakespeare Festival is tackling one of the toughest nuts the Bard has to offer: ``King John,'' a tragedy that isn't read, performed, or even thought about very often. Indeed, there's no indication that it was printed before the First Folio in 1623, which probably means it wasn't very popular even in Shakespeare's own day. The new production at the outdoor Delacorte Theater, directed by Stuart Vaughan, gives the play a game and sincere try. But the results aren't likely to turn traditional opinions of ``King John'' upside down.

A sort of prologue to Shakespeare's great history plays, ``King John'' has some strong characters, vivid situations, and earnest speeches, particularly on the subject of patriotism. It's also noted for its casual attitude toward historical fact - omitting any reference to Magna Carta, for instance, despite its central place in John's career.

In staging ``King John,'' the challenge is to emphasize the play's epic sweep, arranging and pacing the action in such a way that its frequent plot twists won't seem contrived or arbitrary. Vaughan and company don't quite accomplish this. The only consistent virtues of their production are a sense of irony that brings a modest wit to many scenes, and a penchant for expressive stage tableaux that punctuate the evening. In other respects their interpretation seems continually lurching from one keyed-up moment to another, rarely anchoring itself in the bedrock of historical and psychological interest. John's story emerges more as a succession of tenuously connected episodes than as a seamless web of compelling events.

Several members of the cast manage to stand above the production's generally disappointing atmosphere. Kevin Conway is reasonably forceful in the title role; Jay O. Sanders is strong as Philip. John's half-brother; and Mariette Hartley is memorable as Constance, the play's most persuasive female character. Special praise goes to Joe Morton as Hubert and to Moses Gunn as Cardinal Pandulph. The fights are lively, as staged by B.H. Barry, and Bob Shaw's scenery is functional if not very evocative.

``King John'' is the least exciting entry so far in Joseph Papp's ambitious Shakespeare marathon, edging out ``Julius Caesar'' for last place in the standings. It's true that Shakespeare didn't give Mr. Papp and his colleagues a whole lot to work with, but my memory of the play - from a reading some years ago - led me to expect a bit more than I encountered on the Delacorte stage. Too often the proceedings seemed ``as tedious as a twice-told tale vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man,'' to borrow an all-too-handy phrase from the play itself.

``King John'' continues at the Delacorte through Sept. 4.

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