Conceived and directed by Jason Slavick, Who Would Be King presents interesting questions about power, humanity and faith. It is a story that is both contemporary and biblical, new and yet has been told, but not with the humor and absurdity that the Liars and Believers Ensemble have injected into it.
The show begins with the bumble heads, an innocent and seemingly clueless population. They determine that if they had a king to rule them, their problems would be solved. They appeal to the prophet Sam (Rebecca Lehrhoff), who tries to convince them that the Lord should be their only king. Through the messenger, Agnes (Rachel Wiese), God grants them a king in the farmer Saul (Glen Moore), who leads his people to many victories, but eventually falls from God’s favor by failing a test while also trying to meet the demands of the people. Years later, God finds a new king in D (Veronica Barron), a kind-hearted and fierce female warrior. As D helps the prince, Jonny (Jesse Garlick), she grows popular with the people and Saul becomes jealous and violent toward her in addition to his failing mental faculties. As the play itself states, all fairytales have happy endings, and this tale is no different.
Thematically and symbolically the show presents a lot of information to unpack. The idea that an authority figure will solve all society’s problems or is representative of an omniscient power is counterbalanced with that individual’s own humanity and faith on a fragile scale. This conflict is most clear in the character of Saul, who is constantly being asked, “Who are you?” The prophet Sam and the warrior D demonstrate trust in an invisible entity, Sam is frustrated by God’s expectations, while D seems to trust despite doubt. There are political themes at play when Jonny tries to help the less fortunate, while Saul is only concerned by remaining popular with the elite. Symbolically, the bumble heads literally move from using children’s toys as weapons to swords; the stage is stripped of color as their civilization becomes focused on war; layers of costumes begin to disappear, and the characters stop singing.
Rebecca Lehrhoff, Rachel Wiese, Jesse Garlick, Veronica Barron
As an ensemble, the five actors are incredibly in tune with each other. Their physical performance is tight from the airy and directionless movement of the bumble heads to the precision of the fight choreography. Since each of them plays multiple characters, they switch from one to another seamlessly showcasing their diverse physical and vocal talents. As the actors move on stage, Jay Mobley generates electronic music that melds smoothly into the story and choreography. He also sings throughout the piece. It is difficult to tell if his vocals play the voice of God, or if his vocals are the inner thoughts of the characters on stage. Repetition is key to his performance in many ways, often repeating a line that is sung or spoken. Usually repetition does one of two things, it either gives the audience more understanding, or it leads the audience to question the repeated action or phrase. In the case of Who Would Be King, the repetition seems to serve the latter purpose.
While the performance is entertaining and intellectually intriguing, and the themes are juicy and relevant, the production doesn’t feel quite right. It might benefit from more stage time – if it were a two act play the show might have more room to flesh out those themes, and isolate the biggest of them. Despite its daze of themes, Who Would Be King is a relevant and intellectual challenge with a stunning ensemble.
Who Would Be King: Liars and Believers, Theatre 511, 511 West 54th St. Closes April 1st.