"Every family has its ups and downs..."
So says Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of England's King Henry II, at a pivotal moment in Allen Community Theatre's current production of "The Lion In Winter", by James Goldman. However, her words could hardly be more of an understatement, as the family she refers to is the Plantagenets: one of the most dysfunctional clans in all of history. Set during Christmas 1183, at Henry's "vacation" castle in Chinon, France, the play details the gamesmanship between Henry, his estranged (and scheming) wife Eleanor, and their three ambitious sons; Richard, Geoffrey, and John. Also included in the intrigue are their Christmas court guests; Philip II, the young and newly-crowned King of France, and Philip's half-sister, Alais (who is betrothed to Henry's son Richard, but has since become Henry's mistress!) What follows is an entertaining, roller-coaster ride of collusion, conspiracy, back-stabbing, lying, machination, and deceit. In other words, just a typical 12th-century family gathering...
I was thoroughly impressed with the set for "Lion". Kasey Bush, LaMar Graham, and their production crew have done an incredible job turning Allen's compact stage into a medieval castle. It truly looks the part: gray, bleak, and gloomy. Greg Cotton’s terrific lighting enhances the setting, especially when one particular scene requires candles to be lit, one by one. Richard Stephens Sr.'s excellent background music, a collection of medieval plainsong and monastic chants, provides an almost haunting atmosphere. Be warned, however: the temperature in the theatre is nearly as cold as a stone castle – an absolute must for the actors, given the mix of hot lights and heavy costumes – so be sure to bring a sweater or jacket when you attend.
In addition to her skilled direction, Robyn Mead has assembled an impeccable cast. Every actor fits their role as neatly and comfortably as their superbly detailed and tailored costume (kudos to Audie Preston!).
Gary Anderson portrays Henry II, the eponymous “Lion”. But this beast has no roar. He doesn’t need it. As brilliantly portrayed by Anderson, Henry is quiet, brooding, and oozing with confident authority. He’s king and he knows it; unafraid to do anything – to anyone – in order to keep his crown. His only true weaknesses are the women in his life; his estranged wife Eleanor, and his mistress, Princess Alais of France, both of whom are more than able to bring out the lion – and the lamb – from within the beast. Anderson’s wily repartee with both women provides much of the play’s most entertaining moments.
Leigh Wyatt Moore is Eleanor of Aquitaine, a lioness herself, and more than a match for the mighty Henry. Temporarily freed from imprisonment – for plotting to overthrow her own husband! – Eleanor has come to Chinon to ensure that her favorite son, Richard, is named as Henry’s heir. But her concern is not from love – such an impractical emotion is completely beneath her – but rather for power. She may not be able to claim the throne, but she can at least control it. Moore’s Eleanor is a mixture of charm, ruthlessness, gentility, and venom. How she’s able to so flawlessly mix these attributes is amazing to watch, especially in her scenes with Henry. There’s no love lost – or is there? – between the two of them.
Rebecca “Becca” Tischer plays Alais, Princess of France. Betrothed to Henry’s eldest son, Richard – or was it John? – she has also become Henry’s mistress. Alais is fully aware that she is little more than a political pawn to unite their countries. Played by another actress, the character could have been little more than a whining, self-pitying brat, but Tischer has wisely – and superbly – chosen to portray her as headstrong and confident; willing to accept her political fate, but only on her terms. She’s not afraid to go head-to-head with both Henry and Eleanor, a fact which both monarchs openly appreciate.
Jonathan Dickson plays Henry’s eldest son, Richard Lionheart (the same of “Robin Hood” fame), and his character is every bit as expected; blustery, pompous, arrogant, and dangerous. As young King Philip comments; “he’s the only man I know who would slaughter a village for sport”. Yet Dickson brings an unexpected vulnerability to the role. Keen to be king, he’s prepared to take the crown by force if necessary, but his (unrequited) love for his mother brings out un-kingly emotions in a particularly compelling scene. Kudos!
Quinton Coulonge is Prince John, Henry’s youngest son, and his father’s (openly) favorite. John is more than eager to assume the role of king, despite being spoiled, vain, and completely clueless politically. Easily manipulated by his brothers – especially the scheming Geoffrey – Coulonge is terrific in this role, playing the youngest sibling with a combination of both mousy suspicion and ignorant abandon. It was obvious that he was enjoying his role, and well he should.
Nicholas Tischer portrays Geoffrey, the middle and (admittedly) least-favored of Henry and Eleanor’s sons. But the lack of his parents’ approval hasn’t fazed Geoffrey; indeed, he has become the shrewdest of the bunch, fully aware that true power lies behind the throne, not on it. He aspires not to be king, but Chancellor, and is perfectly willing to support whichever brother wins his father’s crown. Tischer plays the mercurial Geoffrey to perfection, skillfully vacillating between brothers as royal favor waxes and wanes.
Rounding out the cast – though by no means leastwise – is Jake Stephenson, as the French boy-king, Philip II. This is Stephenson’s first “adult” role, and he handles it incredibly well. The son of the weak-willed Louis VII, Philip is determined not to be cast in the same vein as his father, and is willing to defiantly face Henry man-to-man; even to the point of threatening war if his political demands aren’t met. But the young king harbors a disturbing secret, which could threaten any alliance should it ever become known. Stephenson’s interactions with Henry are truly compelling. This is a young actor to definitely follow.
Everything about this production borders on perfection, and the only real detriment I could find was the theater temperature (don’t forget that sweater!). All in all, ACT has hit another home run with “The Lion In Winter”. It’s playing through Dec. 17th, and it’s a terrific escape from the hustle & bustle of the season. I command you to go and see it – even if it takes a Royal Decree!