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Thursday, Jan. 17, 2008

Arthur, the Boy Who Would be King

Theater Review

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Many have reworked the tale of Arthur and his Round Table. In Arthur, the Boy Who Would be King (at Sunset Playhouse through Jan. 27), James DeVita combines a number of myths surrounding Arthur’s origins and life and succeeds in painting a rather human portrait of the legendary leader—a person just as capable of folly and dejection as the next man. What he doesn’t dwell on enough is the moral dilemma that faces Arthur when his own lofty sense of justice and the machinery through which it’s dispensed returns to haunt him.

The story begins with a world-weary and embittered Arthur fighting a losing battle. Merlin appears, grizzled but decidedly chirpy, and with a rather conspicuous wave of his staff transports Arthur back into his past. We see Merlin seek out a safe and anonymous refuge for baby Arthur when his father is overthrown. As he grows, so does his sense of justice, and by the time he extracts Excalibur from the enchanted stone, his moral fiber exceeds his physical stature. Arthur marries his childhood love, Guinevere, and the two share a comfortable marital bliss until Lancelot appears and sweeps both king and queen off their feet. Enter Morgana, Arthur’s half-sister, who evolves from a waspish little girl to a full-bodied viper nestled in the trusting bosom of the royal court. Combining the equally corrosive arts of dark magic and female sorcery, she sows the seeds of doubt among Arthur’s knights until he is held ransom by his own lofty beliefs. The play refreshingly counters the phrase “frailty thy name is woman” with “folly and blind-sightedness thy name is man.” The performance itself was somewhat lackluster on opening night, the English accent tripping up seasoned actors and fledglings alike. The perceptible awkwardness of the cast and their accents may iron itself out over the course of its run. The venomous Morgana (played by Vicki Spaulding) was one of the highlights of the play; Arthur’s affable foster father was another.

J. Michael Desper’s set was also rather lackluster. Nonetheless, what appeared to be grooved cardboard or plastic fashioned into the crenelated walls of a medieval castle served its purpose, making any set changes unnecessary. And the audience, made up of children and adults in more or less equal measure, seemed bent on overlooking any awkwardness or blemishes in the production. I on the other hand was caught in a moral quandary no less burdensome than Arthur’s: how to season my criticism of the performance with due acknowledgment of the youth of much of its cast.