“King Charles III” Reviewed by Dan Berkowitz

Charles Philip Arthur George, Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Rothesay, heir apparent to the British throne, has often been a subject of ridicule. Married to the glamorous fairy-tale Princess Diana, he found himself overshadowed by her, and, apparently none too happy about it, he frequently appeared sour and surly. A devoted environmentalist, he nevertheless provoked derision when he confessed he talked to plants. On the TV puppet show Spitting Image, he was all huge nose and jug ears, preferring to commune with a bush rather than other humans. And when, after his split with Diana and her subsequent death, he married his first love, the overly toothy and harpy-like Camilla, the jeering reached a crescendo.

But more than anything, the facts that Charles is the oldest and longest-serving heir apparent in British history, and, if he were to become king, would become the oldest person ever to ascend the throne, make him ripe for mockery: will Mummy ever die? Will this longest-lived lord-in-waiting ever get to be king? And if he does, will he be so old he won’t be able to remember what to do?

Given all this, a play titled King Charles III – a fantasy about what happens when Mummy finally does ascend to a heavenly throne and Charles claims his birthright – might conceivably have been written as a farce. But playwright Mike Bartlett chose instead to craft a serious meditation on principles, and how much one might choose to sacrifice to preserve them. In an intelligent, handsome production at the Pasadena Playhouse, director Michael Michetti and a large and splendid cast and crew provide the sort of sumptuous entertainment we see too little of in today’s theatre. Hip Hip Hurrah!

Jim Abele. Photo: Jenny Graham.

The Queen is dead, Charles (Jim Abele) is king, and his first order of business is to sign a bill being pushed by Prime Minister Evans (J. Paul Boehmer). The bill places severe restrictions on the press, and everyone is sure the new king will sign it, first, because his mother routinely signed every bill Parliament put before her – the monarch is really just a figurehead, dontcha know? – and second, because Charles has been victimized by the tabloid press as no sovereign before. The memories of all those paparazzi flashing away over the years, stripping Charles and his family of their privacy, will surely make him sympathetic.

L-R: Meghan Andrews, Adam Haas Hunter, J. Paul Boehmer, Laura Gardner, Jim Abele, and Dylan Saunders. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Well, as it happens, no. Charles sees the bill as an infringement on freedom of the press, about which he feels very strongly. He also feels very strongly that, as king, he has certain rights and duties beyond simply wielding a pen, and one of them is to “warn” his people of what he believes to be dangers to the realm. And this bill is one of them.

And so begins a dance, the steps of which most of the characters find difficult to master – or even figure out.

The Opposition leader Stevens (Carie Kawa), whom Charles, in a break with tradition, chooses to meet regularly, privately encourages the new ruler’s rebellious streak: her party disapproves of the bill at hand, so anything which will upset the apple cart is fine. However, she’s also a politician, so in public – and with her opposite number the Prime Minister – she says no such thing. Charles doesn’t understand politics, or the compromises politicians make, so he’s flummoxed, and becomes increasingly stubborn about insisting on what he sees as his royal prerogatives. A constitutional crisis looms.

Adam Haas Hunter and Meghan Andrews. Photo: Jenny Graham.

There are also a few family crises to tend to. Prince William (Adam Haas Hunter) is a nice enough fellow, but his wife Catherine (Meghan Andrews) wants to be queen, wearing the crown as an equal to her husband, and she doesn’t want to wait: she’s Lady Macbeth in a designer frock.

Dylan Saunders and Sarah Hollis. Photo: Jenny Graham.

And then there’s Prince Harry (Dylan Saunders), hail-fellow-well-met, more at home in a dark, loud nightclub than in a palace. While carousing one night, he falls in love with a girl, Jess (Sarah Hollis), and when her past proves embarrassing, he offers to give up his royal title to be with her as a “common man.” In a startling bit of prescient casting, Ms Hollis is biracial, while the woman to whom the real Prince Harry just announced his engagement is also biracial.

Mr. Abele makes a splendid Charles; indeed, one almost wishes he were indeed the heir to the British throne, as he would be able to play the part quite well. Mr. Boehmer’s Evans is a worthy adversary, respectful to a point, but eventually seething in frustration and resentment.

L-R: Jim Abele, Mark Capri, Dylan Saunders, and Laura Gardner. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Of the crisp, no-nonsense types which surround them, special mention must be made of Mark Capri as the generally disapproving Reiss, whose diction is the crispest and demeanor the iciest as he finds himself forced to deal with what he clearly regards as a never-ending succession of fools; Laura Gardner as Camilla, who manages to make the character simultaneously warm and insufferably bossy, and who garners several of the evening’s biggest laughs; and Robert Beddall, who makes the most of his scene delivering an important document, and in so doing presents an almost dictionary-like definition of “twit.”

The rest of the cast is, by and large, quite wonderful. My one cavil is that several of the actors occasionally suffer defeat at the hands of blank verse and British accent and become unintelligible; fortunately, it doesn’t happen often.

The set by David Meyer, costumes by Alex Jaeger, lighting by Elizabeth Harper, and original music and sound by Peter Bayne, are all opulent, in the best sense of the word. And director Michael Michetti has brought all the elements together expertly.

King Charles III is surprising in concept, but, thankfully, traditional in its storytelling and entertainment value. Well done all around, chaps.

King Charles III
Written by Mike Bartlett
Directed by Michael Michetti

Through December 3
Pasadena Playhouse
39 South El Molino Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91101

Tickets: https://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org/event/king-charles-iii/


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