William Shakespeare is dead. Long live Mike Bartlett, author of Charles III, a “future history” The Bard himself might have written had he been looking back, not at Kings crowned Richard or Henry but at a 21-century monarch facing the crisis of his or any sovereign’s reign. Now getting a spectacular Southern California Premiere at a newly revitalized Pasadena Playhouse, King Charles III is the best play William Shakespeare never wrote.

 Following a stunning, 16-member funeral procession commemorating a just-deceased Elizabeth II’s seven-or-so decades on the throne, the first words out of an instantly recognizable Camilla Parker Bowles’s mouth (“My wond’rous Charles you look composed throughout.”) make it clear that what we’re about to hear will be Shakespearean syntax in all its iambic pentameter glory.

A couple of chuckle-provoking quips (“Your gift my dear,” Charles tells Lady Kate, “it’s what you’ve brought to us. A sense of fashion, better hair as well.”) may at first suggest a comedy, but soon enough King Charles III has revealed itself as the gripping tale of a monarch whose threat to withhold his royal signature from legislature already passed by both houses of Parliament puts his and his son’s and his son’s son’s futures in jeopardy.

 What inspires Charles III (Jim Abele) to even consider this unprecedented measure is a “pro-privacy” bill that could so seriously hobble freedom of the press that, in his not so humble opinion, England would be England no more.

Charles’s hesitation to sign not only enrages the already anti-royalist Prime Minister Evans (J. Paul Boehmer); even opposition leader Stevens (Carrie Kawa) seems ill-inclined to throw her support behind the King.

 Indeed, about the only person resolutely on Charles’s side is wife Camilla (Laura Gardner), not Prince William (Adam Haas Hunter) or Duchess Kate (Meghan Andrews), both of whom fear the effects of the King’s actions on future succession, or Prince Harry (Dylan Saunders), too busy cavorting with pals Couttsey (Robert Beddall) and Spencer (Dileep Rao) and falling for the decidedly unroyal Jess (Sarah Hollis) to pay his father’s actions much heed.

Bartlett’s Olivier Award-winning play would be the stage equivalent of a page-turner even without its Shakespearean blank verse, a fictionalized fly-on-the-wall look at lives lived in utmost secrecy behind Buckingham Palace walls.

That being said, it’s hard to imagine King Charles III having crossed the pond to a multiple-Tony-nominated Broadway run were it not written as Shakespeare might have, with a son haunted by a parent’s ghost, royal intrigues galore, soliloquys for just about every leading player, and characters reminiscent those found in Hamlet, The Scottish Play, or any number of Shakespearean histories. (Just wait and see who Bartlett dares to turn into a 21-century Lady Macbeth.)

That’s not to say that it’s necessary either to know or love Shakespeare to find yourself glued to the edge of your seat for two and a half hours, and indeed, minus “thees” and “thous” and long-dead turns of phrases, Bartlett’s blank verse is as easily comprehensible as an episode of Downton Abbey.

Under Michael Michetti’s striking direction, Abele delivers a multilayered star turn as a Charles at once noble, human, and tragically heroic.

 The always splendid Hunter is the tall, lanky blond prince of any girl’s dreams, and with the equally terrific Andrews doing her darnedest to ensure her husband’s kingly future, Will and Kate are a pair to be reckoned with.

 Saunders gives Prince Harry a scruffy ginger charm and a genuine sweetness that has us rooting for his relationship with Hollis’s saucy, sexy Jess, Gardner is a dead-ringer for the loyal but sadly underappreciated Camilla, and Boehmer’s Prime Minister and Kawa’s Stevens make for a pair of worthy adversaries, the latter in a role gender-bent by Michetti to electric effect.

Amielynn Abellera (Sarah, Free Newspaper Woman), Beddall (also Clive, Sir Michael), Mark Capri (Reiss), accent coach Nike Doukas (Ghost, TV Producer), Bo Foxworth (Nick, Speaker, Sir Gordon), Eamon Hunt (Butler, Archbishop), Abe Martell (Servant, Terry), and Rao (also Paul) shine in featured roles and cameos.

 Scenic designer David Meyer’s stark but elegant, imposing set lets some audience members stand in for MPs, Alex Jaeger’s costumes and April Metcalf’s wigs suit each character whether he or she is easily recognizable or not, and Elizabeth Harper’s lighting design and Peter Bayne’s sound design and stirring original music add to the impact throughout.

Bree Sherry is production stage manager and Kathleen Barrett is assistant stage manager. A prerecorded Pasadena Master Chorale sings under Jeffrey Bernstein’s choral direction. Casting (out of Los Angeles) is by Nicole Abusto.

 As compelling and rewarding as it is daring and ambitious, King Charles III cements Mike Bartlett’s reputation as one of England’s finest young playwrights. Following Deaf West’s groundbreakingly brilliant Our Town, the venerable Pasadena Playhouse is on one humdinger of a roll.

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Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena.

–Steven Stanley
November 15, 2017
Photos: Jenny Graham


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