Updated: Jun 20, 2020
"... a blood match with much bellowing, betrayals among blood kin, drawn knives over mudslinging, and revenge"
The return of James Goldman’s venerable, and still very beguiling play, “The Lion in Winter,” best known for the film version starring Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn, has been brilliantly timed for this festive holiday season at JD Theatricals at The Attic Community Theatre in Santa Ana.
But, for ever how terrible your own yuletide celebrations proved, however vicious the noisy acrimonious quarrels and recriminations spent over the turkey and mince pies, they will be as nothing when compared to Henry II’s Christmas party at his castle Chinon in 1183.
The whole family’s been invited. Henry II, sensing mortality at 50 but still vigorous, is there with his nubile young mistress. And to add a little Christmas spice to the mix, he’s granted his equally brilliant and equally ruthless wife, Eleanor, a brief release from the prison in which he has kept her for the previous 10 years to join in on the fun. Meanwhile, his three sons, all deeply unlovable in their own special ways, argue, connive, and form shifting alliances to become his successor.
“The Lion in Winter” is, of course, historical grandiosity, but nonetheless high-class grandiosity. Produced by Kathy Paladino and stylishly directed by Bob Fetes, it is much more capricious on stage than in the overblown film. Actor/Director Fetes has set the bar high this year, by the way, having just been awarded “Man of the Year” in Theatre for 2018 from the Los Angeles Times Daily Pilot for his amazing productions last year, including “The Amorous Ambassador” at Newport Theatre Arts Center.
Written by playwright James Goldman (not to be confused with his Academy-Award winning screenwriter brother, William Goldman, of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “All The President’s Men” fame), Goldman’s theme of the narrative is the battle over the throne fought at his castle between Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, his once beloved wife and queen. Henry favors their youngest, John, who is described in the play as pimply and smelling of compost.
He is seemingly spoiled, obnoxious and sullen, vacillating not out of cleverness, but out of fear and weakness. John is easily tricked and manipulated by his older brother, Geoffrey, who has the strongest intellect of the family; Geoffrey is also a cold, amoral schemer. His view of himself is of one who yearned greatly for the love of his parents while receiving none. But the entire family is engaged in a dynastic chess game in which an empire is the prize, Henry's mistress is a convenient pawn, and the outcome is a weary, exhausted stalemate. This puts John and Richard, Henry and Eleanor at loggerheads, while shrewd Geoffrey seethes at the fact that no one even considers him.
Prominent all the way through Goldman's marital slugfest there is a delicious, refreshing insouciance among the characters, and dialogue with joky, anachronistic modernity to persuade us these Plantagenet plotters are just like us. Director Fetes deftly gives these 12th-century figures a contemporary interior and sensibility - one that comes across easily to a younger audience. There are even presents under the tree, one of many deliberate blithe anachronisms (Christmas trees were not brought into houses until around the 16th century). The biggest gift at Henry’s disposal, however, is his crown, and that is the one all three of his sons are after.
Henry not only wants to continue his relationship with Alais, but also wants to keep his Parisian neighbors at bay while he reacquires the Aquitane, a rich land in southwest France that Eleanor and Henry gave to Richard. But Philip insists that, per a previous treaty, either Richard must be married to Alais or Henry must return the Aquitane to France.
And so the skirmishes and battles begin. Far from dry and boring politics, this is a blood match with much bellowing, betrayals among blood kin, drawn knives over mudslinging, and revenge motivated by ancient serial adulteries. Like any family, each member knows what the other’s hot buttons are, and discovering a new weakness is an especially precious prize.
While Goldman’s script isn’t historically accurate or totally chronological, he excels at crystalline polished dialogue with witty rejoinders, impassioned speeches and rhetoric as rich as Brandywine. “What shall we hang, the holly or each other?” is one famous line from Henry. Another from Eleanor who says of meeting Henry in their youth, “We shattered the commandments on the spot.”
But one of the genuine pleasures in the play is watching Noah Wagner at work as Henry II. Mr. Wagner portrays an alpha male with a resonant voice, heroic swagger, and a capacity to invest Goldman's slick dialogue with raw emotion. Although history teaches us that Henry was slightly bow-legged, in this production his kingly airs are very distinguished. His manipulations of family and others are, however, another matter. He is spontaneous and emotional as opposed to the well-thought-out stratagems of Eleanor, or the cold, calculating machinations of Geoffrey.
As he surveys the treachery of all his sons, and the collapse of his hopes, he invests what is essentially a campy roguish charm, using his own measure of reality. He seems to enjoy playing the game of who can trump whom (and I use that word metaphorically) as the better pathological liar. It does require a very good actor. And Mr. Wagner exudes just the right relaxed majesty when delivering his lines. His wily, calculating guile as the king makes the dangerous space between charm and cunning feel so warm that you want to bask in it, even if it kills you. His speech disinheriting his sons, one of Goldman’s best, is beyond superb.
Jill Cary Martin is also stellar as Eleanor – a classical tigress, delivering one-liners with the right snap, crackle and pop, and suggesting a sly, duplicitous mind at work. Eleanor is a beautiful woman of hot temperament, and great authority and presence. She has been a queen for nearly 46 years and is thoroughly capable of holding her own in a man's world, having become Queen Consort of France as a teen-ager and ultimately marrying 17 year old Henry II, a man 11 years her junior. It had always been a torrid relationship.
She schemes against Henry but loves him intensely at the same time. She has contempt for her children but is not willing to see them harmed, especially her more regal Richard (later to be known as Richard the Lionheart). When pitted in debate with Henry, it becomes a melodramatic, nail-biting, carpet-chewing, power-play performance as she dominates the stage with a mixture of rage and engaging wit. In private, she ruefully shows bemused skepticism at someone’s declaration of emotion, while at the same time, licks her own wounds, realizing she is well past her prime.
I must admit, there are times you want to hurl one or two of them over the castle wall into the moat, but the chief fun lies in watching Mr. Wagner and Ms. Martin offer up a 12th-century version of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor sizzled in this 1966 movie) while locked in a love-hate embrace for all eternity.
Carly S. Taylor’s Alais is a complex counterpart to Henry, who reveals her true motives only in a trickle, until they become something torrential. Ms. Taylor lends her mistress a delicately titillating presence. Alais is the half-sister to Philip and has been promised to Richard when they were both children (instead, Henry has held her captive for years at Chinon and wooing her as his paramour). Everyone underestimates her intellect and power. She is initially portrayed as innocent, but by the end of the play she has begun to acquire a ruthless streak of her own, insisting that Henry imprison his three sons for the rest of their lives in the dungeon.
Speaking of the King of France, Christian Jordan Skinner astounds as the pompous 18-year old novice ruler, Philip. Overcompensating, knowing that with only three years on the throne he is not as accomplished as Henry in manipulating people, Philip seems to acquire greater skills at this by the end of the play. Using plenty of acerbic gallows humor, he is impressive and regal in his manner without being too churlish, and fits the Anglo-Saxon stereotype of an overly-civilized Frenchman perfectly.
The scene in which the furious Henry arrives in the bedroom of the King of France for a political chat, only to discover that all three sons are concealed behind tapestries and plotting against him, has more in common with one of Georges Feydeau’s farces than historical fact. And the dramatics become particularly bawdy when it is realized that the macho Richard, commander of armies, all bristling with aggression in Jesse Seann Atkinson’s prodigious performance, has been having a gay fling with the French monarch all along.
The entire cast is unassailably solid: Mr. Atkinson’s brooding mercurial Richard, Brendan Bartunek’s needy John and Mr. Skinner’s callow but seething Philip. Accolades are due the award-winning Matthew Cobb as Geoffrey for a multifaceted character portrayal without dwelling totally on the facet of the textbook unloved childhood. Always an exemplary performer, Mr. Cobb has a quiet yet effective manner and delivers his lines with precision and power. Director Fetes has found the tricky balance that alternates quips with life-and-death struggles in the space of seconds. Notable also is the intricate political maneuverings when a character retreats to the shadowy sides of the stage to nurse their injuries and egos, and they still continue to be aware what’s going on center stage and react.
The Technical Director is Nicholas Locke, and Stage Manager is Dawson Vansteenhouse. But the real stunner is Gordon Buckley’s breathtaking array of clothing that seems to be the height of fashion for the High Middle Ages: gilded crowns, fur lined robes, brocaded tunics in a cornucopia of patterns, elegant gowns, all with vibrant colors and appearing to be layered as if against the winter chill.
Finally, Jim Huffman has outdone himself in the creative departments, designing a medieval palace throne room and bedchamber whose granite stones are a clever mix of multi-dimensional set construction and backlit illumination. It features vaulting windows, tapestries, banners, heavy wooden tables and benches – all of it evocatively transforming from one scene to another. Performing double duty, Mr. Huffman also manages Lighting Design.
Here’s another little tidbit to ponder: Did you know there’s a bit of Plantagenet in all of us? Well, most of us, anyway. According to calculations made by Ian Mortimer in his biography of Edward III, over 80 per cent of the living English-descended population of England shares some ancestry with the Plantagenet kings of the 14th century, including Henry II. In other words, there’s a pretty good chance that you are, on some level, related slightly to a Plantagenet.
This is not, I should say, a mandate to start slaughtering archbishops, or hanging, drawing and quartering your enemies or even sticking your wife in a dungeon. But it’s pretty cool, all the same.
“The Lion In Winter” runs through February 3rd at Attic Community Theatre, 2834 S Fairview St., Santa Ana, with nine performances remaining. Until then, audiences have the vicarious pleasure of watching these brilliant and witty Machiavellians attempt to outfox each other. Highly, Highly Recommended! Show times are at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets start at $15. Please visit www.https://attictheater.yapsody.com/event/index/329286/the-lion-in-winter
The Show Report