SSC delivers vibrant and riotous ‘Lion In Winter’
If you’ve never seen the fabled 1968 film, The Lion In Winter, well, that’s a shame. But it means you’ll have the pleasure of discovering the witty James Goldman play on which it’s based for the first time in the vibrant new production from Shakespeare Santa Cruz. Still, even if you know the film and/or play well, can recite the dialogue like the Pledge of Allegiance, it only means you’ll get an extra kick from the infusion of vitality this delicious SSC production brings to the material.
The whole point of live theater is that it’s live, on stage, without a net, and the intimacy of the SSC indoor Mainstage Theater is an ideal venue for this fast, funny, and absorbing character-driven family drama. Set in medieval England, but written in modern vernacular, “The Lion In Winter” is an inspired, user-friendly choice by SSC Artistic Director Marco Barricelli to launch the company’s 2010 season. It also provides one of the juiciest roles of the season to Barricelli himself, who plays embattled monarch, husband and patriarch King Henry II with authority and panache.
Directed with solid stagecraft and intelligence by Richard E. T. White, the play’s setting is Christmas, 1183. Weary, 50-year-old Henry has a dilemma: three grown sons all angling to inherit the kingdom of England, including sizable possessions in France. His wife, the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine (the wry, commanding Kandis Chappell), has been under house arrest for years after supporting a rebellion among the sons against Henry’s favorite. But Henry lets her out for an uneasy family reunion, at which he hopes to resolve the conflict between them all (or at least out-maneuver his opponents).
No mean feat, that. Warrior son, Richard (dynamic John Pasha), Eleanor’s favorite, and destined to become the Crusader King, Lionheart, is determined to crush anyone who stands between him and the throne. Bratty, teenage John (played to awful perfection by Dylan Saunders), considered a “pustule” by his brothers, is, for reasons unknown, Henry’s favorite. Stuck in the middle is acerbic Geoffrey (played with sardonic brio by Aaron Blakely), no one’s favorite. Overlooked and unloved (“What’s the nothing Geoffrey gets?” he quips, when Henry announces plans for dividing his kingdom), Geoffrey has the necessary wit to play kingmaker to whichever brother seems likeliest to gain the prize.
But the odds keep shifting as family members attempt tp bribe, coerce, plot and counterplot their way toward resolution. (Plotting, says Henry, is “the only way to be king, alive, and 50 all at once.”) Adding sauce to the mix is the French princess, Aleis (a touching Mairin Lee), sent to the English court as a child to wed whichever prince succeeds to the throne, raised by Eleanor like a daughter, and currently Henry’s mistress. And the wild card is the new French king, Philip (sly, simmering Adam Yazbeck), a wily young monarch who is Aleis’ brother and has a discreet history with Richard, but is more than willing to throw the army of France behind whichever claimant makes him the best deal.
The production values are first-rate. John Iacovelli’s simple, powerful set, with its massive wooden doors and timbered walls (suitable for hanging holiday greenery or spy-concealing drapery) is a lovely backdrop for B. Modern’s elegant medieval gowns and rough-hewn male garb. (A handy map on the stage floor like a decorative stencil is an ingenious touch.) Kent Dorsey’s lighting design casts shards of evocative stained glass colors across the floor during scene changes. And Bonfire Madigan Shive contributes a subtly propulsive minimalist musical score, particularly effective in her aching cello solos.
But biggest kudos are due to White’s excellent cast for making the most of both the wit and poignance in Goldman’s script. Henry is a feast of a part, and Barricelli tears into it with gusto, whether berating (or weeping over) his antagonistic sons, seeking peace in the arms of his young mistress, or baiting Eleanor. (Threatening to have their marriage annulled after six daughters, five sons, and 31 years, he needles, “The nation will be shocked to learn our marriage was never consummated!”) Chappell’s Eleanor is his equal in complexity, savage wit and heartbreak, revealing in cagey snippets that the one injury this “dragon” can never forgive is losing Henry’s love. The most compelling aspect of his production is how deeply this Henry and Eleanor still adore each other as both adversaries and old friends. (“Let’s defy them all and live forever!” she dares him.)
Both moving and riotous, this is one of the most entertaining SSC productions ever—and that’s saying a lot.
SSC’s “The Lion In Winter” plays in repertory through Aug. 29 at the Mainstage Theater, UCSC. Tickets: $14-$47. For more information, visit shakespearesantacruz.org or call the UCSC ticket office at 459-2159.