Through Dec. 2
201 E Capitol St., S.E.
The National Theatre
1321 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.
There’s some new theater in town. At the National Theatre, it’s the world premiere of the Broadway-bound musical “Beetlejuice”; and another fresh offering, “King John,” a rarely produced Shakespeare work, is playing at Folger Theatre on Capitol Hill.
“King John” (set at the start of the 13th century, it’s the earliest of the Bard’s historical plays) is the story of politics. It explores greed, “Commodity,” power and familial relationships. Folger’s energetic, vibrant production staged by Aaron Posner — his 20th at the Folger — moves fast and tells a complex, busy story remarkably lucidly.
The plot involves the fight for the English thrown following the death of Richard the Lion Heart. While the ostensible inheritor of the crown, Richard’s brother King John (Brian Dykstra) grasps firmly to power, bolstered by his famously ambitious mother Eleanor of Aquitaine (Kate Goehring), others angle to replace the monarch including Constance (out actor Holly Twyford), the widow of John’s older brother. Backed by France, Constance struggles to snatch the crown for her young son Arthur (Megan Graves). War and murder ensue.
At the top of the show, before King John speaks his first lines, the cast presents a foreword especially crafted for this production. The zippy prologue charmingly serves two purposes: It both acquaints the audience with the plot of this seldom-performed play, and equally important, it gives an idea of the many players and factions involved in this politically complicated and dangerously fraught time.
King John is typically considered the classic villain, but Dykstra gives a nuanced take. Sometimes he’s clumsy (the king repeatedly stumbles over his thrown usually just after making a significant statement, and sports a badly tailored suit), but his sometimes-clownish ways belie a merciless killer’s instinct. He’ll do anything for power.
The design team is quietly successful. Andrew Cohen’s deceptively simple set consists of an unadorned wooden crown hanging over a similarly constructed throne, entirely in tune with the production’s feel of raw politics. And Sarah Cubbage’s dark costumes crowd the stage with a take on Edwardian clothes: Bowlers, sack coats, vests and dusters, for the men and longish skirts for the women.
Twyford is marvelously emotionally driven as Constance. And Kate Eastwood Norris delivers a terrific performance as Philip the Bastard, a character who actually acts and thinks and acts like an authentic person. Wearing trousers and black boots, Norris cuts a fine figure as the ambitious wag on the royal scene. This pleasing part is so sharply drawn and lovingly penned, it makes o’ne wonder why the play isn’t performed more often?
“Beetlejuice” adapted as a stage musical is everything Tim Burton’s 1988 quirky screen horror comedy wasn’t: It’s loud, grating, excessively lewd, hard to follow, overworked and at three hours (twice the length of the film) too long.
Naturally, in adapting screen to stage changes are made, but unfortunately the book by Scott Brown and Anthony King is a disappointment.
The gist here is that six months after the death of his wife, real estate developer Charles Deetz (Adam Dannheisser) and his depressed goth daughter Lydia (Sophia Anne Caruso) leave Manhattan for a rambling country house. In tow is Lydia’s dim life coach and Charles’ love interest, Delia (the funny Leslie Kritzer).
The house’s previous owners, a saccharine couple played by Kerry Butler and Rob McClure, are dead but have taken up residence in the attic. They’d like to reclaim their home but they aren’t scary enough to scare off he new owners.
Lydia is thrilled to find ghosts upstairs. In an effort to send her father and Delia packing, Lydia seeks the aid of Beetlejuice (Alex Brightman), a raunchy, wise-cracking demon con artist who styles himself as a freelance bio exorcist who claims he can get rid of the living.
The longwinded second act goes further astray, most pointedly when young Lydia temporarily shares digs with Beetlejuice. During this time, they rather mean-spiritedly terrorize country neighbors and various delivery men. It doesn’t add much to the tale.
The part of Otho, played so memorably by out actor Glenn Shadix in the movie, is no longer an affected interior designer/medium. Otho has been downgraded to Delia’s silly guru who appears on the scene accompanied by a squad of bewigged Warholesque acolytes with whom we’re repeatedly reminded he enjoys group sex.
Eddie Perfect’s original score, loaded with power ballads, sung soliloquies and some big numbers, is performed by a golden-throated cast. The show boasts Broadway talent with big voices including a good showing of Tony winners.
Film fans will welcome familiar bits including the “Day O (The Banana Boat Song)” dinner party scene and afterworld appearances by the charred dead football team, a green- skinned “Miss Argentina” working reception and the big game hunter with the shrunken head. Also, there are some rather marvelous puppets of ghost-killing sand snakes and some dangerous, anthropomorphic abstract sculpture. But it’s not enough.
“Beetlejuice” is better enjoyed as a quirky onscreen ghost story than a musical comedy. And again, the show’s humor — potty-mouthed, adolescent and mostly unfunny — is a letdown.