Thursday, December 1, 2016

A Lascivious "Lion in Winter"

Game of Thrones fans, this one's for you! 

Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.
Do you like castles? Incest? Bloody family feuds? Do you follow Game of Thrones as if it's your actual family?

If so, I have the play for you.

The Lion in Winter, currently showing at the Guthrie Theater on the McGuire Proscenium stage, falls neatly into the Game of Thrones frenzy. Most famous for a lovely screen adaptation starring Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole, The Lion in Winter is a modern language look late in the lives of King Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine as they near the end of their days.
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.
Henry II united the warring duchys of England (and much of what is now France) at the tender age of 21, and is trying to determine his successors as he nears the end of his life. Eleanor, the legendary queen of France and later England, who bore 11 children and fought as fiercely as any warrior, is Henry's estranged wife who has been locked in a prison tower for 10 years. Although they have desperate fights and no longer share a bed, Henry and Eleanor have undoubted chemistry that is fiery and lasting, despite Henry's many affairs (his current one being with their adopted daughter 30 years below his age). Around the spontaneous combustible that is Henry and Eleanor's relationship orbit their three adult sons, each of whom has severe issues (Richard, with aggression; Geoffrey, with plotting and scheming; and John, with childish selfishness. All three also suffer from insatiable jealousy).
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.
The play is a constant ball of tension, swinging between ever shifting loyalties and old fights that never seem to die. Still, despite the quicksand of anger that the story is built on, it is easy to tell that these characters love each other. They may be messed up, they may be dysfunctional, they may even want to kill each other - but life can't exist without one or the other, so they are all here to stay.
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.
This show could feel staid if it didn't have a good cast; thankfully, this one has amazing chemistry and hits all the right notes. This is mainly thanks to the excellent leads, Kevyn Morrow (as Henry II) and Laila Robins (as Eleanor). These two have sparks that could set the sun on fire, and it is delightful watching them spar with each other. Morrow is particularly delicious, reveling in Henry's evil ploys with the gravitas of Denzel Washington and the anger of Papa Pope. He is marvelous, and a perfect foil to Robins, whose task of stepping into the legendary shoes of Katharine Hepburn is no small one. It's okay, though: she is more than up to the job. Robins slithers through the show, expertly manipulating the audience (as well as her children) with her sneaky plots. Robins also brings a dry humor to the play that helps liven the vicious mood. Morrow and Robins form an inimitable team; thanks to their strong performances it's not hard to discern how Henry II might have accomplished his incredible goal of forming an empire long before the concept existed for anyone else.
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.
The children are equally well performed. Thallis Santesteban is wonderful as Henry's young lover/daughter/firebrand Alais Capet, the sister of the king of France. Her disappointment over her position and her strong defense of her beliefs demonstrates what Henry might have seen in young Alais, and makes her a stronger foe than Eleanor may have bargained for. Torsten Johnson is a little flat as the oldest son Richard Lionheart, although it works: Richard has clearly numbed himself from a lifetime of battle and hiding his homosexuality. Geoffrey lives up to the name while played by Michael Hanna, who shows the treacherous nature of his intelligence. As the youngest son John, Riley O'Toole perfectly captures the whiny, selfish, thoughtless aura of a spoiled child. Philip II, king of France, rounds out the cast as played by David Pegram. Pegram helps manipulate the audience almost as well as Robins, revealing surprise after surprise to us through his intrigues. He's a good core for this story to hinge on, and fits the cast well.
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.
The set here (with an inspired design by Christopher Ash and Beowulf Boritt) is spare but really exciting (again, really reminded me of Game of Thrones' opening credits). It's a single timber-framed tower seen only through its outlines, surrounded by softly falling snow and lit with a series of creamy, glowy LED candles. As it rotates to reveal different rooms of the castle, we are placed in various corners of the action that feel intimate even though the set is so sparse. It's a brilliant trick, allowing us to see all the intrigue taking place in the castle even while we focus on the immediate action. I really enjoyed it, and it helps to keep the pace of the show feeling fast (it clocks in at around 2 hours and 20 minutes). Costumes, as designed by Karen Perry, are lavish and befitting such a royal family, featuring gold thread, glittering jewels, thick fur trims and more. The extravagance of the costumes offsets the spare bones of the set, and overall we get a solid feeling of the coldness in the castle as well as the hearts of the characters.
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.
I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed The Lion in Winter. I'd seen the movie ages ago but felt it was a little rusty and boring. Imagine my surprise, then, to find such a lively cast breathing full, contemporary heart into this story that is nearly 1,000 years old. The banter between Henry and Eleanor is fierce and biting, the love they share is painful yet warm. The Lion in Winter is full of contradictions and in its complex portrait of power is an apt cautionary tale (or perhaps reflection of a certain fallen woman of power?) that fits right into our post-election narrative. This incisive play will keep you inspired to keep an extra eye open at night. Anyone who enjoys power narratives (think: Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, House of Cards, etc.) will definitely enjoy this show.

The Lion in Winter runs through December 31; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.