Jack Levithan C’69 had already chuckled through A Midsummer Night’s Dream, beheld Brutus’s betrayal in Julius Caesar, and caught the famous balcony moment in Romeo and Juliet. He’d been in the audience for Macbeth and Much Ado About Nothing; The Tempest and Twelfth Night—and on and on until his “seen” list totaled 37 Shakespeare plays.
But there was one that remained elusive—still out there, unwatched, for the last 24 years: the lesser-known, rarely performed King John.
When Levithan’s cancer returned this past summer, “the wheels started turning,” says his daughter, Susannah Levithan. She wanted her dad to finally check that last play off his list, especially if he didn’t have much time left.
She wrote to “any place I could think of,” she says, from the Globe Theater to CUNY Arts Center, to ask about a possible King John performance. Most of them pointed her toward YouTube recordings of the play. But at Penn, her email happened to reach Noah Levine C’14, a Theatre Arts alum who is now associate director of the program.
“It was a bit of right place, right time,” Levine says. He’d been part of the (now-disbanded) Underground Shakespeare Company as a student at Penn. “I said that maybe outside of work, I could contact some of the people I went to school with and put something together,” he recalls.
He hopped onto an existing Facebook Messenger thread of Underground Shakespeare alums and asked if anyone would like to act in a live Zoom reading of King John specifically for Jack and his family. “Immediately, so many people said they’d love to do it,” Levine says. “That made me think that I could tell Susie maybe I can make this happen.”
Susannah, Levine and the Underground alumni chose a date. A total of 16 Penn alums signed on to perform. Levine assigned parts and trimmed down the script to a more manageable sub-90-minute runtime.
King John is one of Shakespeare’s history plays, and among the more obscure of his 38 works. “It’s not performed all that much, and there’s a lot of talking and politics,” Levine says. “There’s some of those brilliant moments in Shakespeare’s language—some really great speeches, some funny monologues. But it’s easy to see why this is forgettable. It’s one of five or 10 Shakespeare plays that I wouldn’t be surprised many people have never heard of or seen.”
But Jack was well-aware of King John, the only gap on his list of Shakespeare plays. He’d watched most of them in the New York Shakespeare Festival’s long-running Shakespeare marathon, which presented 37 of The Bard’s works between 1988 and 1997. As a fan of Shakespeare since high school, he’d seen many other versions, too.
“I consider myself a collector of Hamlets,” he says. He’s seen at least seven or eight productions of it over the years and ranks it as his top Shakespeare play.
“My favorite [Hamlet] was done by Ralph Fiennes on Broadway” in 1995, he says, “but I also saw Alan Howard do it in 1970 in Stratford-upon-Avon in England and it was unedited—went for 4 hours and 45 minutes—and my bride and I had to run at the end to get the last train from Stratford that day.”
Another standout was Shakespeare in the Park’s 1972 staging of Much Ado About Nothing, starring Sam Watterson “long before he even heard of Law & Order,” Jack says. He went again when the production transferred to Broadway in 1973.
Thanks to the power of Zoom, Jack was able to watch King John with more people than he’d ever brought along to a theater before. His wife, children, grandchildren, extended family and closest friends all tuned in with him on November 13—some sitting beside him in person, others logging on from afar.
“The performance was truly outstanding,” Susannah says. “The Penn community really came together for my father, and for that, I am eternally grateful.”
“I’m not a bucket list guy,” adds Jack. “As I like to say about this production, teasingly, my last words were never going to be, ‘Oh damn, I didn’t get to see King John.’ But now my last words, given my sense of humor, could be, ‘Ha, and I even got to see King John.’”
—Molly Petrilla C’06