By Madison Friend
Who Would Be King, showing this month at the Oberon (American Repertory Theater) in Cambridge, might give you whiplash. It’s a kinetic retelling of the biblical story of King Saul from the creatives at Liars and Believers that blends live music with a fast-paced story and a colorful cast of characters to rare effect; this short-running gem of a production veers from zany absurdity to unexpected profundity between blinks, guided by an expert cast with a clear, focused passion for the show they have created.
Glen Moore stuns as the titular King Saul, providing the audience a nuanced portrait of a tortured man making the most of his circumstances in the face of divine disapproval. Saul’s devolution from contented, practical, happy-go-lucky farmer to tortured, paranoid, power-hungry king seemed so natural played by Moore, as if an entire lifetime actually does pass in the two hours of theatre darkness. Jesse Garlick, meanwhile, shines in the second act as he beautifully captures Prince Jonny’s immense frustration with and deep respect for his father through a series of exasperated sighs and seemingly inconsequential interactions that prove some of the most telling moments of the production.
Rebecca Lehrhoff and Rachel Wiese have excellent chemistry as Sam, the down-on-his-luck prophet, and Agnes, God’s winged messenger. Lehrhoff is just stiff and determined enough as Sam to keep the audience from pitying him, despite his repeated failures to deliver on God’s orders, while Wiese is charming, enchanting, and unexpectedly funny as both Agnes and a rotating cast of Bumbleheads.
The events of the production spanned a lifetime, but blink and you would have missed them. The creators kept it fast-paced with a series of unexpected, incredibly inventive framing devices that both engaged and critiqued the largely young, media-savvy audience. A reality TV-type contest to choose a new king (a complete farce – God chose) made for one of the best musical numbers of the show and an effective device later on, when Jay Mobley (absolutely excellent, though occasionally corny, with the live music) intones “A good king has the goods,” over and over as Saul descends, Lear-like and goods-less, into madness. Later, the news broadcasts from the Bumblefolk prove a most effective expository trick, providing the audience with decades of information in a few funny minutes as Lehrhoff and Wiese riff on FOX, the fickle nature of public opinion, and the 24-hour news cycle.
It’s a gorgeous, immersive, ambient spectacle, but without such a talented, cohesive team, it would have fallen to disparate pieces. It takes a singular focus to do as much as they did in only two hours, performing costume changes nonchalantly on-stage, pivoting effortlessly from character to character, like the foolish uncertainty of the Bumblefolk to the angry energy of the Evil Jabash. The show’s greatest strength is its versatility (their versatility) and clear commitment to the material. Sitting in the audience, as the cast sings and dances and climbs and jumps around you, it’s impossible not to buy into the world they’ve created. Who Would Be King is a silly, subversive show with something profound at its core, a sharp wit and big heart almost masked by the relentless but wonderful absurdity of the clown kingdom.
Who Would Be King is currently showing at the Oberon (American Repertory Theater) in Cambridge, MA at 7:30 pm on Nov 5, 6, 8, 12, 13, 19, 20, and 22. Tickets are $25/$35. A limited number of student rush tickets ($10) are available at the door. Visit their website for more information: http://www.liarsandbelievers.com/whowouldbeking.
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