Monday, October 29, 2012

The Lion In Winter at the American Shakespeare Center

The contemporary classic tale of an aging King fighting to control the inheritance of his kingdom receives a rousing production at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia.   James Goldman's The Lion In Winter is a natural fit for this classical repertory company and the decision to pair this play with its natural sequel, William Shakespeare's King John is inspired.   If you wonder how a company dedicated to the staging practices of Shakespeare's time period translates those staging practices  when the play is a twentieth century classic that seems wedded to a traditional proscenium theater, worry not.   Just as this company proved with last season's production of Oscar Wilde's The importance of Being Earnest, this production seems to naturally lends itself to the Blackfriars' stage.    With the lights on, the audience becomes the courtiers of King Henry II's court, witnessing more intimately the troubled family dynamics of the King's melodramatic relationships.   The myriad scene changes appear seamless, thanks to the use of those company members who are providing the music for this production making the scene changes as deftly as chess players setting up a high stakes game.   With the vocal stylings of Chris Johnston providing Christmas carols in a manner reminiscent of the renaissance, the audience is completely enveloped in this tense family gathering.

It is Christmas 1183.   King Henry II has summoned his imprisoned wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine and his three sons to attend the festivities.  His eldest son, Henry, the young King, has died.  Richard, the eldest remaining son, is favored by his mother to succeed the throne  and is best known for his military prowess.  The teenage John, is favored by his father.   The middle son, Geoffrey, knows that while he will not inherit the throne he can use his intellect and craft to be the power behind the throne.   Into this mix enters the young Phillip, King of France who has come to settle territory disputes with King Henry and solve the betrothal of his sister, Alais.   Alais, raised at the English court since she was a child, is Richard's intended bride, but has become the mistress of King Henry.   A battle of wits and grave emotions ensues.

The Lion In Winter is a most satisfying historical drama.   The family dynamics of the first Plantagenet king has provided dramatic fodder for generations.  It is a credit to the writing of James Goldman that the amount of historical material revealed within the play does not bog down the proceedings.  Instead it provides for high stakes drama.   Here, the perfectly cast ensemble brings this family to exciting life.

Tracie Thomason portrays the gentle Alais.  In love with her King, Alais is a political pawn who knows that at the drop of a hat her destiny will be decided most likely without her consent.  Ms. Thomason shows a genuine affection for the much older Henry, yet when he betrays her love and trust the beginnings of an awareness of political reality grows.  Not for nothing does Alais warn that she could cause a great deal of trouble if she so chose.

As her brother, Philip, Rene Thornton, Jr. clearly demonstrates that this young king is a force to be reckoned with.   In the climatic scene of act one, it is Philip who orchestrates the shattering of the king's delusions involving the loyalties of his scheming sons.  Mr. Thornton relishes proving to the old lion, Henry that he is no mere boy to be schooled in kingship.

John Harrell portrays Prince John as a spoiled teenager, but Prince John should not be underestimated.   Willing to do anything to remain his father's favorite and inherit the throne, Mr. Harrell shows that the young John is the serpent in King Henry's bosom.    

Geoffrey, the middle son, is usually portrayed as a cynic who is well aware that he is overlooked by his parents in the quest to inherit the throne.   What makes Gregory Jon Phelps portrayal much more nuanced is how Mr. Phelps makes it clear that Geoffrey craves his parent's approval.   His Geoffrey is genuinely hurt that he does not have his parents' love and affection.  It is a very interesting perspective on a character known for his wit and sarcasm in the text.

Benjamin Curns Richard is the plainest spoken son.   His Richard is the strong warrior, the natural leader and shows great piety when needed.   Mr. Curns bravely embraces Richard's darker nature as he is forced by King Philip to acknowledge Richard's inner demons.

Tracy Hostmyer and James Keegan are well matched as Queen Eleanor and King Henry.   These fiercely dynamic monarchs wage war with their words, yet the love and lust that is hinted at in the script always lies just beneath the surface.   It is certainly true with these actors that love and hate are but two sides of the same emotional coin.   The battle for control is a tight game of chess, yet even though, in the end, King Henry proves that the old lion still has his mettle, Eleanor is just as strong, the caged lioness who will be leashed upon the world again once Henry breathes his last.

James Goldman's The Lion In Winter is being performed in repertory with William Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, Cymbeline and King John through November 24, 2012.  For tickets and other performance information, please visit,

Please note:  The production of King John being performed as part of this repertory has Tracy Hostmyer, John Harrell and Rene Thornton, Jr. portraying the same characters from The Lion In Winter.  Benjamin Curns portrays the bastard son of his character Richard the Lionheart.  It is a rare opportunity to see both of these plays performed in the same season with the same actors.

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