Mariette Hartley and Ian Buchanan bring star quality, decades of stage and screen experience, and award-winning acting chops to the Colony Theatre’s splendid revival of William Goldman’s The Lion In Winter, a 12th-century drama so rich in family intrigue, it could easily have served as a model for any number of nighttime soaps.
Indeed, the play most of us know from its 1968 screen adaptation puts in mind Dallas or Dynasty—had they been set in England circa 1183. As for those who may have longed to experience Shakespeare’s histories in contemporary English, The Lion In Winter fulfills that wish, and then some.
Though in fact Peter Goldman’s Broadway flop play-turned-Hollywood hit movie turns out to be (as Wikipedia puts it rather ungrammatically) “fictional and none of the dialogue and actions is historical,” it still makes for one of modern American theater’s most entertaining (if a tad overlong) dramas and offers actors some of the meatiest roles of their careers—proof of which is now onstage as the Colony’s 2013-2014 season closer.
Daytime Emmy winner Buchanan is Henry II, 50, King of England circa 1183, and Primetime Emmy winner Hartley is Eleanor of Aquitaine, 61, Henry’s long-estranged spouse whom he’s kept locked up for assorted treacheries over the past ten years, the last seven of which he’s spent canoodling with teenaged King Phillip II of France’s 20something sister Alais (usually pronounced Alice, though not in this production), who grew up alongside Henry’s boys and whom Eleanor once considered the next best thing to a daughter. (Very soapy indeed, n’est-ce pas?)
To celebrate this year’s Christmas Eve the good old family way, Henry has released Eleanor from her tower (albeit temporarily), reuniting parents, children, and (opposite and same-sex) lovers (or former lovers) under the same royal roof.
Let the machinations begin.
With eldest son and heir Prince Henry having met his maker the summer before, a decision must now be made as to who will wear the royal crown upon King Henry’s death. Will it be Richard (Brendan Ford), 26, the apple of his mother’s eye who will sit upon his father’s throne? Will Henry’s favorite John (Doug Plaut), 16, succeed Henry II as His Majesty The King? Or will middle son Geoffrey (Paul Turbiak), 25, manage to scheme his way to the top of the list?
Complicating matters is the presence of 17-year-old King Phillip II of France (Paul David Story), whose father’s treaty with Henry promised a royal wedding between Princess Alais (Justine Hartley)—now Henry’s teen mistress as you will recall—and the future English King, regardless of whichever of Henry’s son gets picked.
With drama on as a majestic a scale as this, Stephanie Vlahos proves an inspired choice to direct the near operatic Lion In Winter, a play which the artistic director of Opera Posse stages quite grandly indeed, beginning with a striking opening sequence which has characters striding across the stage one by one as Eleanor looks down from her prison tower.
Hartley and Buchanan both deliver force-of-nature performances, giving Eleanor and Henry epic proportions, yet never letting us forget that each is a living, breathing, suffering, exulting human being, whether it’s Henry railing à la King Lear at his treacherous progeny or Eleanor wrying quipping “What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”
The three would-be Kings are each quite marvelous, from Ford’s handsome, defiant Richard to Turbiak’s tenebrous, conniving Geoffrey to Plaut’s gawky, petulant John. Justine Hartley may have been closer to Alais’s age when she first played the role opposite Mom Mariette fifteen years ago, but the russet-haired beauty invests the King’s mistress with so much heart and depth that this mother-daughter casting pays off. Best of all among supporting players is powerhouse young Broadway vet Story, whose baby-faced good looks make the revelation of Philip’s true nature all the more startling.
A crackerjack design team make The Lion In Winter look and sound absolutely sensational. Scenic designer David Pott’s pillars and arches see themselves transformed into the Castle at Chinon’s various rooms, halls, and dungeons, thanks in part to costumed “servants” (Vlahos’s LACHSA students Desa Julia Ilic, Shannon O’Hara, and Nick Vogels). Jared A. Sayeg’s operatic lighting design could not be more stunning, with Kate Bergh’s elegant period costumes and properties designer/set dresser John McElveney’s multiple medieval props terrific creations as well. Drew Dalzell’s sound design (incorporating background music by Vox Vulgaris, Bjork, Devotchka, and Velvet Underground, among others) completes the design package to atmospheric perfection.
Dale Alan Cook is production stage manager. Robert T. Kyle is technical director.
The future may have looked iffy at best for the Colony a mere year and a half ago, but philanthropic angels great and small have brought Barbara Beckley’s Colony Theatre back to vibrant, exuberant life. The Lion In Winter looks to be one of the Colony’s Greatest Hits in years, and justifiably so.
Colony Theatre, 555 North Third Street, Burbank.
April 19, 2014
Photos: Michael Lamont