Updated: Jun 12, 2020
Dirty Family Dealings Make for Juicy Viewing
Alchemy Theatre Company, a Southern California theatre since 2012, in association with Concord Theatricals, is proud to present James Goldman’s “The Lion in Winter.” Abundant in sibling rivalry, unbridled adultery, and back-stabbing schemes, “The Lion in Winter” is counterpart to a vibrant modern-day classic, comedic in tone with its bristles and barbs, and dramatic in its manipulative guile. The play, set in 1183 at Chinon Castle in France, tells the story of the unhinged Plantagenet family, who are locked in a holiday free-for-all “slugfest” of competing ambitions, with all three sons jockeying for position and vying to inherit a kingdom. “Every family has its ups and downs,” summarizes Eleanor, but in this royal family there seems to be more waning than waxing.
If this sounds a little like reality TV or a Middle Ages soap opera, it should. It IS much like the bickering of the Kardashians. But fans of the TV show “Empire” recognize it a different way. Goldman’s 1966 play is actually where the TV program gets the name of its Lyon family and its setup: A domineering father, a barb-spouting mother released from prison and three sons who want to take their father’s power and rule his empire. Just change a record label to a kingdom, and you’re all set. Dirty family dealings do make for juicy viewing, and Goldman’s formula works well.
The original Broadway production of “The Lion in Winter” was considered to be sophisticated drama with its blending of historical fact and anachronistic and witty dialogue. And the 1968 film version two years later starring Peter O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn is still thought to be a minor classic.
Directed by Alchemy founding member, Jeff Lowe (who also portrayed Geoffrey), and arranged by Adam West and Kelsey Somerville, “The Lion In Winter” was vividly brought to life for “one night only” in a virtual, live reading performance on May 30th at 7pm. Courageously, in the midst of a global pandemic, civil unrest, a crumbling economy and an unprecedented political arena, this theatre helps bring fresh new life to a hibernating industry, proving there is no stopping the arts, no matter what momentary setback.
In addition to Director Lowe, the mainly OC production starred Joe Parrish (actually performing from Kansas) as King Henry II, Rose London as Eleanor of Aquitaine, Brandon Sanchez as Richard the Lionheart, Jon Cates (in Alaska) as John, Laura Hathaway as Henry’s mistress, the Princess Alais, and Joey Nestra as King Philip II of France.
Based on real people, but not real events, Alchemy’s highly fictionalized play reimagines the late reign of England’s King Henry II as a bitingly comic carnival of intra-family hostility, and these prestigious actors did not disappoint. “How dear of you to let me out of jail,” says wife Eleanor, bitter-sweetly to her husband Henry after having been imprisoned for ten years over a failed plot to kill him. His starch reply: “Only for the holidays, my dear.”
With that, one of Eleanor’s own sons who’s harboring a grudge, Richard (Mr. Sanchez), bluntly lays her bare: “The human parts of you are missing.” Meanwhile, Richard’s youngest brother, John (Mr. Cates), is calling their middle sibling, Geoffrey (Director Lowe), a “rancid bastard.” Yikes! But then, the character is actually not unlike a typical rich brat with a chip on his shoulder.
Their festive season, though, is not merely reduced to quarrelling over presents after swigging down copious quantities of mulled wine. In this lion's den everyone has much more important matters on their minds other than simple name-calling. Henry is aging, and it is time for him to name an heir. He favors his youngest, John, but Eleanor supports her favorite, the eldest son, Richard.
Meanwhile, Geoffrey, the middle son (who may be the most cunning of the bunch), plays his brothers against each other as well as against his parents. In fact, everyone in this semi-barbaric royal family is basically plotting against the other, but the main power struggle is between the vigorous Henry and his clever Queen Eleanor. The two of them play with the lives of the court as though they were playing chess, using a real kingdom as the game board. They are both strong- willed, accomplished people, and they are equally matched players in their desperate quest to checkmate the other. In the end, the deception, betrayals and reversals of allegiances leave no room for any affection or anything closely resembling real love.
It’s the actors who make this wild ride worthwhile and their performances that makes it fun to watch. Director Lowe has a good sense of the brisk pacing this sort of melodrama needs, with its dastardly scheming and ever-shifting alliances, ratcheting up the suspense and physical heat, when needed. The sons, while individually interesting, are at their best when pitted against each other and their parents. It is then when each displays the fine pitch and highly colored threads of character they collectively weave into a tapestry of bitterness and ambition.
Mr. Cates gives us a whining, sniveling, cowardly John; Mr. Lowe is a cold, pragmatic Geoffrey, and Mr. Sanchez is a cruel, twisted Richard. Mr. Nestra is smooth and silky as the politically astute King of France, radiating smug intelligence as he aids and abets the family meltdown. And the dramatics become particularly ribald when it is realized that the macho Richard, commander of armies, has been having a gay fling with the French monarch all along.
Ms. Hathaway is both beautiful and charming as Henry's adored mistress, cleverly conveying both coolness and innocence at first, which makes her later hardhearted decisions that much more explosive. Since it’s a zoom reading of course, there is no stage, but most of the actors were equipped with a backdrop plug-in that resembled a medieval castle.
Mr. Parrish’s portrayal of Henry is rather like the King of the Jungle – a bombastic, wily manipulator who enjoys being boss. He growls and roars from time-to-time, provokes his sons and, egged-on by Eleanor, almost gives in to murdering them. Hardly the good father one might think; even he has similar views, describing himself at one point as the “master bastard.” Very apt. Nevertheless, he also shows there is a humorous side to his personality.
Ms. London’s scheming Eleanor is a hard-hearted, icy-veined sort of mother, referring to her offspring as “the greedy trinity.” She is a keen match for Henry, but never gets close to getting her own way. And even when she declares her love for Henry and summons up real tears, one cannot help feeling that this is just another trick - a final desperate ploy to avoid being returned to her lonely prison and to regain Aquitaine.
And so it goes. The rivalries, hostilities, emotional manipulation, bargaining, maneuvering, and petty bickering within a royal family which surrounded the politics of succession some 800 odd years ago - still with a contemporary ring. For then, as now, with a kingdom at stake and three heirs, any one of whom could claim the throne, what enterprising young prince would not make just a little extra effort to assure personal success?
“The Lion In Winter,” a one-night-only virtual performance Saturday evening at 7pm, May 30th. If you did not have the vicarious guilt-ridden pleasure of watching these brilliant and witty Machiavellians outfox each other on that performance, please watch for future shows by Alchemy Theatre Company, an organization devoted to advancing art and the experience of theatre through integrity, quality and creativity. You may also visit their website at www.alchemytheatre.com.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer