“What Family Doesn’t Have Its Ups And Downs?”
– by Lee Greene
“What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?” sardonically cries Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (Livia Genise) in Camelot Theatre’s production of the ultimate dysfunctional family drama, The Lion in Winter by James Goldman. This is an extremely well written, intelligent, literary play exploiting true historical facts about the 12th century royal family of Henry II of England to examine an expansive scope of defective family dynamics fully applicable to our 21st century contemporary culture: sibling rivalry, infidelity, parental favoritism, absentee parenthood, single-minded pursuit of power with resulting neglect of affection and nurturance, etc. The play uses real historical facts to fictionally depict the interaction and dialogues of King Henry II, his estranged wife, Queen Eleanor, their three surviving sons: eldest son Richard Lionheart, middle son Geoffrey, youngest son John, and their guest, King of France Philip II, along with Philip’s half-sister Alais, who has been at court since she was betrothed to Richard at age eight, but has since become Henry’s mistress, at an 1183 Christmas Court in Henry’s castle in Chinon, France. Henry, in the winter of his life, is going through a mid-life crisis while also trying to determine which of his three ambitious surviving sons should inherit the throne. His wife, Eleanor, has been imprisoned for attempting to kill him, provoked by jealousy when he abandoned her for a younger, more alluring previous mistress, but is temporarily freed to celebrate Christmas with the family. He favors the youngest, Prince John, to inherit the crown; she favors the eldest, celebrated warrior, Richard Lionheart.
The play was originally performed on Broadway in 1966, where it won a Tony Award for Rosemary Harris’s portrayal of Eleanor. It was made into a multiple academy award winning film in 1968 with a screenplay also written by author, James Goldman, which won an Oscar for Katherine Hepburn’s performance of Eleanor. (In reviewing the film, Roger Ebert declared that “Peter O’Toole’s [King Henry] performance is of Oscar quality, and Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton deserve nominations for their supporting roles as Richard and Philip.” http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-lion-in-winter-1968) The play was revived on Broadway in 1999, producing another Tony nomination, for Stockard Channing as Eleanor. Are you sensing a pattern here? While these are all fine actors who received award nominations for roles in this play, the reality is that this is such a well written play that it brings out the best in most actors in the parts. It provides a vehicle for good actors to really shine. So too with the cast here – all have standout moments: Livia Genise as Eleanor, Tyler Ward as eldest son Richard Lionheart, Nathan Monks as middle son Geoffrey, Max Gutfreund as youngest son John, Rigo Jimenez as King Philip of France, Holly Nienhaus as French princess Alais, but particularly Don Matthews as King Henry. Matthews has rendered many fine and memorable stage performances here in the Rogue Valley, in Camelot’s earlier productions as Roger De Bris in The Producers, as Sweeney Todd in Sweeney Todd, as Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha, as Emile de Becque in Rogue Music Theatre’s South Pacific, as El Gallo in Oregon Stage Works’ The Fantasticks, and as Dr. Bartolo in Rogue Opera’s The Marriage of Figaro, just to name a few. But his King Henry here is his best work yet. It’s too bad we don’t give out theater awards for productions in the Rogue Valley – our own versions of the Tony. Because if we did, Mr. Matthews would definitely have my vote for best performance by an actor in a leading role this year for his portrayal of King Henry.
This is a very cerebral play – all the real plot movement is through dialogue, verbal sparring between the characters. Come prepared to pay attention and listen carefully. While the sparring is intense and dramatic, this really is a comedy, sprinkled with an unending stream of one liners. A few examples:
Eleanor: “I’m locked up with my sons… what mother doesn’t dream of that?”
King Henry: “What shall we hang — the holly, or each other?”
Prince Geoffrey: “I know. You know I know. I know you know I know. We know Henry knows, and Henry knows we know it. [smiles] We’re a knowledgeable family.”
Eleanor [to her jeweled necklace]: “I’d hang you from the nipples, but you’d shock the children.”
Henry II (of his sons): “The day those stout hearts band together is the day that pigs get wings.”
Eleanor in reply: “There’ll be pork in the treetops come morning.”
If you saw and enjoyed the Oscar winning film – you must see this stage play. The stage play came first and the screenplay was written by the same writer, the playwright, James Goldman. But the film leaves out some very good material in the play. Some was cut to save screen time, some because it is depicted visually (the film can describe things visually, while the play relies principally on well written dialogue, which is what makes the play so good). To shorten screen time, the film skimps on character development – Henry’s sons, the French King, etc. are virtually caricatures in the film, but are more fully developed and depicted in the stage play.
So you should be getting the idea that this is a compelling play, which ought to be seen, for its awesome script, incredible depiction of dysfunctional family relationships, historical roots, and superb acting. But one more point about this production cannot be overlooked. This Camelot presentation of The Lion in Winter is a unique production – you won’t see this anywhere else, and if you don’t catch a performance before the end of its run on November 9, you may never again have the opportunity to see this interesting production. The director and company for this production have added something to the play which is incredibly creative, original, entertaining and spellbinding. The play is divided into multiple scenes, each presenting intense dramatic dialogue, by differing characters in different set locations (e.g. Act I is divided into 6 such scenes, with more following in Act II). Director Roy Von Rains, Jr. somehow came up with the inspiration to use Dancing Harlequins to make transitions from scene to scene, as well as in an ingenious aerial silk routine opening the play. The harlequin dancers portray ghosts interacting in dance with the characters, reiterating just completed scenes and foretelling what’s coming in following scenes. These dance routines are superbly scripted by choreographer Brianna Gowland, to a suitable assortment of music, which very beneficially for the audience, relieves the tension aroused in sparring scene after scene by these characters.
Performances of The Lion in Winter continue at Camelot Theatre, 101 Talent Avenue, Talent through November 9, Thursday thru Saturday 8:00pm, Sunday Matinees 2:00 pm. For tickets: order online at http://boxoffice.printtixusa.com/camelottheatre/eventcalendar, or call the box office at 541-535-5250, or in person at 101 Talent Avenue, Talent, Oregon.
This review was originally published by the Jacksonville Review on October 26, 2014 at http://jacksonvillereview.com/family-doesnt-ups-downs/