Director – Mark-Brian Sonna
Assistant Director/Stage Manager – Penny Johnson
Set Designer – Alejandro de la Costa
Costume, Lighting, and Sound Designer – Mark-Brian Sonna
John – Jake Bowman
Berengarius – Mike Hathaway
Liutprand – David Swanner
Adalbert – Brian Cook
Otto – Robert Twaddell
Isobel – Jeny Caisman
Reviewed Performance 6/7/2014
Reviewed by Zach Powell, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
If you are a regular theatre attendee, you may often find yourself in search of a unique experience, something that challenges conventional thinking and attitudes. Perhaps you’re feeling a bit risqué, yet also want an educational and thought-provoking story to be told. If you’re in a bit of a quandary as where to find a historical, educational, and sexy production, Mark-Brian Sonna (MBS) Productions delivers in spades with their production of John XII.
The play focuses on Pope John XII, whose reign, while brief, provided an integral role in the development of the Catholic Church and the world as we know it today. Throughout the play, the audience captures a glimpse into the politics of Europe during the mid- tenth century, creating a greater understanding of some integral and formative years for the Catholic Church.
However, the play also tends to emphasize and focus on the sexual deviances and dalliances of John XII, highlighting his carnal relationships with Adalbert and Isobel, the prince and princess of the Tuscan and Roman state. The interactions between these characters suggest their passions revolved around the attainment of power and influence, with John and Isobel bedding each other to gain status and influence in their world. Only Adalbert appears innocent from the lust of power, only seeking to make his way in the world and to find love. While Adalbert acts as a dunce, he is swept away by John’s passion, willing to supply information as he jockeys for position in this tumultuous time.
The desire for power is not limited to the lovers mentioned above. Political gamesmanship is a required trait if one wants ascend in their world order. Bishop Liutprand craves to be pope, attempting to weasel his way through various alliances to achieve his desires. Otto, king of the Germanic lands, appears possessed by an insatiable appetite for conquering, using brute force and bravado to cow his enemies and allies to advance his cause. Berengarius, the crafty king of the Tuscan and Roman state, illustrates the cunning needed to play people off one another to fortify his position as king and to advance his influence. Each of the various political machinations employed by these individuals provides a way to appreciate the various methods needed to expand beyond their station.
In his debut theatrical performance, Jake Bowman plays the role of John XII. Truthfully, with the sexual overtones in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships required for this role, this is a brave and risky role to take for a first effort. Bowman’s inexperience often shows throughout the course of the play, especially in his often-monotonous voice. While the words written are appropriate for various interactions, all of them are delivered on one vocal level. Concurrently, his facial expressions are wide and large but never connote any type of real emotion behind them, varying little as if he donned a mask that never changed. Whenever Bowman’s role requires a seductive touch, he uses the same expression and never adapts his smile as his interactions with the different characters changed. The same type of problem also occurs with John’s orations, having very little power or feeling to his voice, suggesting that Bowman is merely recalling lines rather than truly feeling them in the present moment.
Mike Hathaway pulls off the role of King Berengarius expertly, truly embodying the cunning of this historical figure. Each emotion appears genuine; each line is emphasized with gusto and grace. The problems and complications facing Berengarius feel real, truly giving life to this character.
Liutprand, played by David Swanner, shows a temperamental and tempestuous bishop vying for advancement from his station in life. Swanner performs best when his character is furious at the developments of his life throughout the play, feeling slighted and cheated by all those around him. The contempt in Swanner’s voice is real, dripping with hatred and envy with every syllable. Perhaps appropriately, Liutprand’s feigned deference appears contrived, although this may be because Swanner’s interpretation requires such an overacted acting performance in these instances.
Brian Cook’s role of Adalbert requires him to appear dimwitted and lackadaisical, caring to avoid the serious implications of the world in which he lives. Cook embraces this carefree attitude well but his emotions often evoke a stereotypical performance of this type of character. There’s no real depth provided through his performance, illustrated only through the generic quality of naïve and simplistic character anyone may have seen before. However, his emotional hurt and pain are the strongest aspects of Cook’s performance, especially during the intense emotional scene when John ends their secret (although no so secret) sexual affair.
Robert Twaddell embodies the ostentatiousness and bravado of a conqueror in the mid- tenth century through his role of Otto. Twaddell’s portrayal of his character’s gregarious nature provides a nice respite from the conniving actions of the other characters, energizing the show whenever a lull may reveal itself. Twaddell channels the passion of wild, Germanic man, consistently inspiring fear and demanding deference from his presence. His singular focus on Otto’s lands appears genuine, as well as his disdain for education and politicking. Overall, Twaddell embraced his role well.
Jeny Caisman also plays her role well as the voluptuous, sultry and seductive Isobel. Her seductive actions on stage translate well, creating a strong female character bent on gaining power in a world dominated by men. Each glance and glare carried a calculating gaze, as if some internal plot is always twisting in the back of her mind. Each step carries a measured cadence, no move unplanned, no missteps due to distraction. Each facial expression carried enough deference to garner acceptance but carried just a hint of mockery. Caisman’s performance suggests a spider-like quality as Isobel weaves her web and entraps others to advance her station. According to her actor biography, Caisman is related to Isobel, and perhaps the characteristics demonstrated so well on stage are an inherited trait.
The costuming of the play is often sloppy, with each piece appearing poorly made and ill fitting. Rogue threads are abundant and tunics hang improperly on each actor’s shoulders. The fabric appears to have come from the curtains of an older home in Oak Cliff or a 70s era game show set. However, Sonna’s research suggests that this era of history was when clothes were purposefully made that way, before society required better fitting garments. This best costume is a green dress worn by Isobel, belted in gold and draped well on Caisman’s body.
The venue for this production lends itself well to the setting of the play. Each scene takes place in the office and bedroom John XII, before the establishment of the Vatican and the extravagant tastes of the Catholic Church. The wood paneling and hardwood flooring work well with Sonna’s set design, creating a more humble, rustic atmosphere. Each piece of furniture is appropriate for the time period and yields an authentic quality.
Lighting is not an overly impressive aspect of this show nor is it required for this production. The illumination is simple and serviceable and each transition is smooth, with no obvious malfunctions or glitches.
Much like Bowman, one has to be brave and adventurous to see this play. It is unlike most plays currently showing due to its sexual content. Having said that, if you are need of darkly humorous and lustful evening, by all means go see this production of John XII.
a play by Mark-Brian Sonna
Stone Cottage Theatre
Addison Conference and Theatre Center
15650 Addison Road
Addison, TX 75001
Runs through June 29th
**NOTE: This play contains adult language, sexual situations and brief male nudity, and therefore, no one under 18 is allowed.
Performances are Thursday - Saturday at 8:00 pm. Additional performances are Wednesday, June 18 at 8:00 pm, Saturday, June 21st at 2:00 pm, and Sunday, June 29th at 2:00 pm.
Tickets range from $18.00 to $23.00, depending on the date.
KERA members can buy one, get one free ticket, for a maximum of 4 tickets. To claim this offer, call their box office.
For information and ticket purchases, please go to www.mbsproductions.net or call the box office at 214-477-4942.