THE LION IN WINTERBy James Goldman
Denton Community Theatre
Director – Mildred A. Peveto
Assistant Director – Melanie Welch
Set Designer – Carol Alexander, Mike Strecher
Props Design – Tonya Harrison-Mueller, Erin Gern
Lighting Designer – Scott Davis
Sound Design – Danica Bergeron
Costume Coordinator – Erin Gern
Hair Design – Logan Broker
Stage Manager – Susan Thornton
Henry II - Greg Scott Phillips
Eleanor- Constance Lane
Alais - Amanda Leavell
John - Gage Tijerina
Geoffrey - Caleb Norris
Richard - Aaron N. Martin
Philip - Justin Kenyon
Philip’s Guard – Sean Holmes
Servants to the King - Jessica DeLeon, Susan Hebert, Emily-Ann Moriarty, Lauren Reeves, Emma Campbell
Reviewed Performance: 1/24/2016
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
James Goldman had the same idea. The story of Henry II and his family in 1183 is a tale of family dysfunction. And, while Goldman’s story is not entirely accurate, history shows it was usual for royal families to go through the same struggles families experience today. Except then the dysfunction affected nations.
Denton Community Theatre mounted The Lion in Winter as a legacy of twenty years in the company’s own history. This was the show that opened DCT’s productions. Mildred A. Peveto, Education Director of the DCT School, directed this year’s production with an eye to recapture the magic of that original show.
The Campus Theatre’s big stage was filled with a large set representing the interior of the Castle at Chinon, a historical site during Henry II’s reign and setting for Goldman’s story. Carol Alexander and Mike Strecher designed with large flats and blocks to create stone walls of the castle. The pre-show speech noted it was the same set design used in that first production. It was impressive, like a large block Lego set, including a tower assembly for Henry’s bedroom balcony probably ten feet high. Large heraldic banners of Henry’s sons hung from the fly space. Between set designers and the property mistresses, Tonya Harrison-Mueller and Erin Gern, this set was furnished and filled with lushly colored tapestry curtains, large wooden banquet table that converted during intermission to a large bed, a room for King Philip complete with curtained bed, plus lots of other furnishings one could imagine in a castle, barrels for a wine cellar, and other items. Props included swords and knives, a big bear rug and fireplace and other items used by royalty. There was a large Christmas tree, the subject of this play being a gathering at Christmas.
Scott Davis lit this huge set, brightly most of the time, but dim at times, and a few blackouts. Danica Bergeron provided a few sound effects and a round of renaissance background and filler music. Both lights and sound were unobtrusive and minimal.
Costumes and hairstyles were fairly lavish. Erin Gern was Costume Coordinator. The time is 1183, in Chinon France in the court of English royalty, so period dress ran the gamut from lavish royal gowns in golds, greens and purples with massive fur and long cloaks to Henry’s boys in tunics and leather skins, or even peasant-looking clothing. It was a look we usually associate with pictures of European royalty, and anyway they were quite beautiful and fit nicely into the colorful set. Hats and crowns were used extensively and so hairstyles changed from the queen’s lavish courtly styles to a messed up bedroom hair. This got its own designer, Logan Broker.
Lion is a family story. Henry was King of England in the line of the Plantagenet family. In 1183, England was ruled from France and much of what’s now France was ruled by the English. His wife, Eleanor, was famous in her own right and controlled the Aquitaine, a large section of France southwest near Spain. Together they bore, among others, four sons, Henry, Richard, Geoffrey, and John. Henry was the heir apparent, but died prior to the opening of this play and that set in motion the events of Christmas 1183. Henry kept his wife Eleanor imprisoned in England to keep her from trying to overthrow him and let her out for holidays to celebrate with the family. In the meantime, Alais, a young girl taken in by Henry and Eleanor to marry Richard, became Henry’s mistress instead. Her brother, Philip, now King of France, came to Christmas dinner to enforce his sister’s marriage contract. At this point in the story, things get complicated.
Most people who know about The Lion in Winter probably saw it in a movie, either in the 1968 film with Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn, or in the 2003 film with Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close. In the earlier film we also saw a young Anthony Hopkins as Richard and the 2003 version introduced Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Philip. Lion premiered on the stage in 1966 in New York. For fans of Fox TV’s Empire, that show is based on The Lion in Winter.
Henry was played by Greg Scott Phillips. He went beyond those previous iconic actors to create his version of Henry with traits and mannerisms that were all his own. His comic timing was impeccable and he used unusual voicing of the English King to comic effect. It wasn’t as much an accent, as there were no English of French accents used, but there was something about his voice that was hilarious and charming even as he shot barbs at his sons, wife and the French King. The role has a roller coaster of highs and lows as Henry goes through his manipulations of everyone to get what he wants. You might argue what he wants, as it changes periodically, but you’ll laugh at how he reaches for it. At one point, for instance, Phillips was in the throes of joy as Henry is able to outwit the French King, but a moment later Henry discovers his youngest son plotted to overthrow him and Phillips dropped into the deepest emotional devastation as Henry disowns all his sons. We see Phillips play out the aches and pains of the 50-year old King, quite old for 1183, creaking about like an 80-year old today. At the same time, he’s agile and strong as he jumps about the sets and fights with his sons in deadly swordplay. Phillips had the right timing and spontaneity that nailed the comedy and pathos of Henry.
Eleanor was played by Constance Lane. This role is also subject to comparisons to iconic performances by Hepburn and Close. Both won numerous awards for this role. Lane, however, did a great job of creating a character that was uniquely hers, while easily fitting into the mold of great Eleanors. As a woman kept in a prison for years and let out only for special occasions, she comes to the family events ready to fight Henry for her Richard to be King against Henry’s choice of John. It seems a pattern for her and Henry, to the point of looking forward to it like sport. But a woman chained is also one who wants out and Lane played this subtext through all the negotiations, all the fights, and all the intimacies with a quiet but deeply felt longing. We see Lane give this woman a familiar lament, aging as an enemy. Is she desirable? Will anyone love for her? In private moments, Lane sags and cries a bit that her desires are dying, but then rises to the public persona of strength, grace and bravado. In moments Eleanor might get the upper hand over Henry, we see exhilaration as Lane soars, almost flying around the stage. In the end, the result is the same, banished back to England, alone for another season. Here Lane shows us the real substance of Eleanor with Henry. Eleanor loves these battles as much as she wants her man. She’s a warrior and Lane gives her the pride of strong womanhood.
Amanda Leavell created a quintessential Alais Capet, daughter of the dead King of France. She came to Henry and Eleanor at eight, betrothed to Richard, and they raised her as a daughter. But when Eleanor was sent away, Alais, becomes Henry’s mistress. Leavell looked and acted the part of a young pretty French girl of twenty-three who’s been with Henry for years. Alais walks the fine line between knowing she has support from the most powerful man in Europe, but also knowing she lives at the whims of a dysfunctional family. Leavell shows Alais to have vulnerability as this fine line sways. We see her as a meek young girl at times, but at others she grows powerful and stands for her beliefs, but cautiously.
Philip, new King of France, was played by Justin Kenyon. This tall blonde boy had the look of a child of royalty. There’s a royal strength he creates as he demands respect from Henry as an equal, yet Philip is still a boy in transition, learning the ropes of ruling, trying to negotiate with the older statesman. Kenyon shows a different subtext that comes from Philip’s past homosexual relationship with Richard and a deep resentment for how Henry treated his father. In the end, Philip declares he has time to outlast Henry and regains his upper hand, and we see Kenyon exit with the strength and resolve of a young King growing in his power.
John was the youngest son, who would be heir by Henry’s choice. Stefan “Gage” Tijerina played this teenager in the throes of all the awkward, spoiled, royal brattiness who can’t be bothered to bathe. Curly blond hair sets him apart from his stronger, more dangerous brothers. And yet he is a boy who is easy to dislike, because of the total commitment by Tijerina to the ill-behaved behavior and his air of superiority over the others. In both of the movies and most plays, this character is a bit player that provides a whipping boy to the older brothers, but Tijerina made John a character that could be a foil to their plans, but also could create comic moments and become a sympathetic character. He used his language and speech to mark his ignorance and immaturity, but not so much that he was a caricature. I liked this version of John and it’s good to know that in history, John eventually became King of England.
Geoffrey, the middle son, played by Caleb Norris, is the most complex character in Lion. Middle sons usually fall between older, braver, accomplished brothers and the beloved baby of the family. Geoffrey was named after Henry’s father, who ruled England before Henry, but in this story he is a conniving, deceitful and hateful son who loves to play everyone against each other. Norris showed Geoffrey as the smartest of the family, able to see opportunities to push his agenda into the turmoil around him, yet he has a loathsome resentment for Henry and Eleanor for ignoring him all his life. Here Norris lurked on the edges of the family fights and waited his turn to play his own games with a seething anger we could feel. When Geoffrey confronts his parents, Norris revealed a glimpse into his intense loneliness and pain from decades of rejection.
Richard the Lionheart was played by Aaron N. Martin, another actor who had a strong resemblance to this character. Richard is the strongest, a complete warrior whose reputation for being ruthless was historically true. He was a fighter in the Crusades. In this, Martin probably had the flattest performance, as he was always angry, never trusting anyone, especially his mother, who raised him. This isn’t to say this was bad acting. He’s just not as complex as the others, but there are vulnerabilities in Richard from his own deep resentments and Martin showed us the depths of shame and guilt in Richard over his relationship with Philip and anguish over his deep, conflicted love for a mother who abandoned him. Richard is quick-tempered, ready to fight to the death for everything. Norris played several levels of physical anger and menacing threats, but when Richard is faced with execution at the hands of father, Norris played the quiet, accepting fate battle-worn soldiers know.
The show is closed so there’s no chance to see these fine performances and this beautiful set, unless you’re around in twenty years to see the reprise. But if you have a chance to see this show anywhere, don’t miss it. It’s a story written in the 1960s, about modern family struggles, with a 12th Century sensibility. It’s an example of the kinds of family squabbles that can turn into wars, the likes of which we’ve seen in our lifetimes. And it’s a cautionary tale about how we should treat each other. I applaud this production and performance team and look forward to new Denton Community Theatre productions.
Denton Community Theatre, Campus Theatre, 214 W Hickory St, Denton, Texas 76201
Played through January 24th. Show is closed. For other shows in their season, check out the website.
For information and tickets, visit http://www.dentoncommunitytheatre.com or call 940-382-7014.