“…For the love of God, can't we love one another just a little?...” – Eleanor
Forget “Dallas.” Forget “The Sopranos.” Think no more of “Game of Thrones,” and disregard totally “King Lear” – all mere child’s play when compared to this royally dysfunctional family.
I’m talking about the story of Henry II and Eleanor, better known as James Goldman’s “The Lion in Winter,” the witty, literate, darkly staged dramedy which turns 12th century English history into a delightful sparring battle. This Plantagenet family soap opera has everything from savage catfights, live-in mistresses, a wife on supervised house arrest, and even a proto-Brokeback Mountain moment. What more could one ask for?
Currently in its final week of play at Laguna Playhouse after a very successful run, the curtain-raiser spotlights two incredible giants in the industry – SAG nominated Frances Fisher and acclaimed movie and TV star Gregory Harrison, with a final performance on Sunday, November 24th.
James Goldman’s 50-year-old historical portmanteau of drama and comedy, set in the Chinon castle of King Henry II, located in the English-ruled region of France during Christmas 1183, is a sharply written, brutally funny battle between Henry, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine and their three sons over who will succeed the king on the throne. Barbed words fly thick and fast and moments of tenderness are rare and suspect as the interpersonal relationships and political wranglings among the English royal family reach a crescendo. Like warring chess masters, the two potentates rearrange the playing pieces into ever-changing alliances over the play's bon mots and battles as they see fit.
“I know, I know you know, I know you know I know, we know Henry knows, and Henry knows we know it. We're a knowledgeable family."
Henry II rules a world in which kings still kick aside chickens on their way through the courtyard, and wears scruffy robes that looks designed to be put on in November and shed layer by layer during April. In this England, 250 years earlier than the time of Saint Thomas More, there was no doubt dogs on dirt floors, rough fur-skins drying from the rain on banquet tables, pots of stew everywhere, piles of rusting metal armor, pigs, mud, dungeons and foul-smelling peasants. But understandably, some of that may be a little hard to drudge up for the stage last minute.
The action is mostly contained within Christmas Eve and part of the next day. Henry (Mr. Harrison) is now an old man at 50 years old and wants to choose his heir before he dies. He has three sons: John, his favorite, a sniveling slack-jaw; Richard, the soldier genius; and Geoffrey, reserved and quietly scheming. Feeling charitable, Henry calls a Christmas court, and lets his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (Ms. Fisher) out of prison on a two-day furlough for the occasion. “I’ve snapped and plotted all my life. There’s no other way to be alive, king, and fifty all at once.”
This version of the Plantagenets puts a strong emphasis on the word “Dynasty,” but, if you're reminded of Joan Collins and Linda Evans having a catfight in a lily pond, the royal rabble-rousers only have themselves to blame. “The Lion in Winter” is laugh-out-loud funny through most of their haughty scenes, and credible enough in its history that all but the staunchest defenders of Richard the Lionheart's alleged heterosexuality will be chuckling along. "This isn't what it looks like, darling – I can explain."
Goldman has the remarkable ability to enlist the power of words to do his bidding. Scenes of sex or violence would have been superfluous, as the verbal assassinations, particularly between the King and his estranged queen, will drag you to the grit of life itself. To put it another way, if you mixed “The Godfather” with “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” – set it in medieval England, and outfit all the actors with chain-mail, you would end up with “The Lion in Winter.” It’s just as great as it sounds.
King Henry’s wife Eleanor, a woman eleven years his senior, has been kept imprisoned in a tower for the past ten years due to a treasonous act, and their three sons, all on knife’s edge, are jockeying for position to the English throne. Eleanor, many times thudding bits of business into glittering little shards of wit, favors Richard as heir, while Henry favors John the youngest.
To complicate matters, the young monarch of France, the recently dubbed King Philip II, has unexpectedly arrived to remind Henry of a treaty he signed many years earlier, promising to allow marriage of his heir to Philip's sister Alais (Chelsea Kurtz). But Alais has been Henry's mistress for the past seven years, and Henry is now trying any way possible to circumvent his previous decree.
Another important issue at stake is who will control the Aquitaine, the largest land mass in the kingdom, primo real estate that leverages much of the kingly powers. As the principle characters plot, scheme, conspire, and counter-plot between each other, the deep-seated emotional ties between them get played out to such point that sibling rivalry and marital jealousy translate into civil war, treason, and even attempted murder among the members of this regal, yet nuclear family.
Director Sheldon Epps gives this production the pace of a ticking stopwatch. Ms. Fisher draws on Eleanor's wit and fierce determination to continue to wield power, although a prisoner. Her scorching critiques of Henry and her sons pop effortlessly from her mouth as bubbles from champagne. She is delightfully ribald, as when putting on her necklace, saying to it, "I'd hang you from the nipples, but you'd shock the children," yet she carries an ever-present regal bearing.
Eleanor is generally the showier role, yet Gregory Harrison’s Henry is every bit as vibrant and fierce a character. Mr. Harrison makes visible the machinations of deceit within Henry's mind, his need for affirmations to stave off any thoughts of aging, and his love of power, in particular the blood sport of king-making. Their battle-scarred scenes together create great sparks which attest to their enmity as well as to the love they once knew.
Mr. Goldman’s scripted events, which shows much creative liberality, most likely did not actually take place at Chinon during Christmas 1183. Still, the prickly family Christmas is an event with which many in the audience will identify, though most families only plot each other's grisly demises as a whimsical fantasy. Not so the Plantagenets, who are ready and waiting with actual armies to take each other out if the division of the kingdom (or even the turkey) goes the wrong way. "I haven't kept the great bitch in the keep for 10 years out of passionate attachment," growls Henry. "I could peel you like a pear and God himself would call it justice!" bellows Eleanor.
Historically speaking, it's a justifiable vision of their relationship, and a very beguiling one. This is a clan in which love works like a cancer, ravaging its host and making it unrecognizable before it kills. "Henry's bed is his province," Eleanor tells Alais. "He can people it with sheep for all I care. Which, on occasion, he has done."
All three princes make sizable contributions to the production's seamless excellence. Henry’s inexplicable favorite, John, is a bundle of teenage angst played with foot-stamping, nasal snarkiness by the very talented Spencer Curnutt (TV:” Chicago Fire,” Film: “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party”). When the king finally decides to marry off his young mistress to John, Alais petulantly objects: "I don't like your Johnny. He's got pimples and he smells of compost." In his defense though, everyone had pimples and smelled of compost in the 12th century. No such thing as toothbrushes. No social calendars for common folk. Basically in the middle ages, anyone who didn't have the black death, the great pox or a compulsion to ride roughshod through villages impaling peasants on spikes was considered the upper crust.
Ian Littleworth’s Geoffrey is a master manipulator who has no scruples about changing sides in order to come out a winner. Quietly conniving, Mr. Littleworth spins the character as the often-forgotten brother, capturing all the angst of middle child syndrome in the role. Goldman could have easily written Geoffrey in as a likeable fellow, providing a little balance and sanity to the equation, but instead, just when we feel sorry for him, he unveils to us his villainy.
Burt Grinstead is the able and determined Prince Richard the Lionheart, who later became King Richard I (remember that scene in “Robin Hood?”) and the perfect older brother. His portrayal of the well-educated passionate prince who is Eleanor’s favorite is one to be remembered. Tossed between a love/hate relationship with his mother, his touching scene with Eleanor could be a study in vulnerability. Still, though Mr. Grinstead’s Richard is bellicose, impulsive and full of petty jealousy, he still manages to maintain an imposing nobility and a regal highbrow.
As Phillip II, Taubert Nadalini (HBO: “Sterling,” “Bright Star” – Musical Theatre West) holds his own against this cunning and cutthroat family, rebuking Henry's repeated taunts as he stands up for his dignity and his country's sovereignty. Mr. Nadalini, with commanding stage presence, deftly captures the strength of young monarch Philip, showing himself as a fearsome foe and joining the plot to capsize the kingdom. And in the highly anticipated bedroom scene with the Lionheart, Mr. Nadalini’s character also shows a wispy side as he lounges in a linen shift with bare feet in the arms of Richard, leaving not much room for conjecture from history’s critics.
Ms. Kurtz (“How the Light Gets In,” “A Picture of Dorian Gray”) is a breath of fresh air as Alais Capet, the captive princess who has become the king’s beloved new consort. Surprisingly touching in her role, Alais is a self-aware pawn, caught in the middle of a power struggle, but eventually finds her own ways to assert her measure of power. Ms. Kurtz has also guest starred in several TV production series, including “The Flash,” “The Resident,” and my personal favorite, “Longmire.”
The simply amazing Frances Fisher, as Queen Eleanor, has starred in over 30 theatrical productions, including Elia Kazan’s “The Chain,” “Hay Fever,” “Cat on A Hot Tin Roof,” “Summer And Smoke,” “Orpheus Descending,” “1984,” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” to name a few. On film, she is perhaps best known for her performance as Kate Winslet’s mother in “Titanic,” which garnered Ms. Fisher a Screen Actors Guild nomination for Best Ensemble Cast. Her numerous film credits include the Oscar-winning “Unforgiven,” “True Crime,” “The Big Tease,” and “Laws of Attraction,” among many others.
The acclaimed Gregory Harrison brings to life Henry II as no one else can. Mr. Harrison’s four-decade career includes nearly 50 TV movies, and regular recurrences on several Hallmark Channel series. On the big screen, Mr. Harrison has appeared in a number of feature films, together with “It's My Party,” “North Shore,” “Razorback,” “Running Wild,” “Air Bud II: Golden Receiver,” “Love 'N Dancing,” “Give 'em Hell, Malone,” “The M Word,” and the upcoming “Hour Of Lead.” In addition to starring in numerous TV series, Mr. Harrison made his Broadway debut in 1997 with Kander and Ebb’s “Steel Pier” and took the Broadway stage again in the 2001 Broadway revival of the critically acclaimed Stephen Sondheim musical “Follies,” co-starring Blythe Danner, Judith Ivey, and Treat Williams, among many others.
Peerlessly directed by Sheldon Epps, the Scenic Designer is Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, Costume Designer is David Kay Mickelsen and Lighting Designer is Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz. Sound Design is by Kate Wecker, Wigs are by Anthony Gagliardi, and Stage Management is by Vernon Willet. Season Producers for the 2019/2020 season are the Hale family. Ellen Richard is Executive Director and Ann E. Wareham is Artistic Director.
Laguna Playhouse’s “The Lion in Winter,” continues its majestic run through November 24th, Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30pm and additionally Thursday, November 21st at 2pm, Saturday, November 23rd at 2pm and a final show Sunday, November 24th at 1pm. Tickets may be purchased at https://lagunaplayhouse.com/ Come join the fun, sit back, and revel in the carnage.
In the words of Eleanor, "What family doesn't have its ups and downs?"
The Show Report
Photo Credit: Ed Krieger