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Review: The Lion in Winter

March 25, 2011

The roster for the Classic Theatre’s current season: Shakespeare! Coward! Ibsen! Goldman!

Er, Goldman? Well, if James Goldman’s 1966 chestnut The Lion in Winter isn’t exactly a classic of the theatrical canon, it’s still a fine example of what used to be known as the Well-Crafted Three Act Play. (Yes, strictly speaking, The Lion in Winter is just two acts—but they’re definitely lopsided, with Act I running far longer than the second.) Goldman’s heavily-fictionalized take on the bickering medieval monarchs King Henry and Queen Eleanor owes much to Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf—in fact, they might as well be named King George and Queen Martha—and the zinger-filled evening boasts a surprising number of laughs. In some ways, in fact, there are too many giggles—whereas Albee employs wit to lead us ever further into the abyss, Goldman’s most clever jokes tend to deflate, rather than exacerbate, the escalating tension. For instance, after a harrowing psychosexual assault on Henry, including some shocking revelations of incest, Eleanor drily deadpans, “Well, what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?” Sure, it’s funny – but Albee would never squander such an unsettling moment for the sake of a joke. Think of The Lion in Winter as Albee-lite.

For the lead couple, the production wisely employs the talents of Allan and Terri Peña Ross, both founders of the theatre, and real-life hubbies to boot. Though Terri has the showier role—even her barbs have barbs—both actors are fine as a dysfunctional twosome doomed to express affection through grotesque displays of power. Their three boys—all vying for the throne—come across as somewhat caricatured: Trevor Chauvin, Mark McCarver, and Roy Bumgarner II, as the dunce, the sneak, and the thug, respectively. Mark Stringham and Amanda McDonald round out the cast as the least screwed-up characters on stage (an admittedly low bar).

The costume and set design (by Margaret Mitchell) and staging (by John O’Neill) provide a few stumbling blocks. Mitchell’s initially attractive set—of a royal court hung with tapestries—isn’t particularly versatile, even as the play shifts from boudoir to boudoir. (In specific, the last scene—in a dungeon-like cellar—is played in a space even larger than the king’s reception hall, which is odd. The whole point of the last scene is to convey a sense of crushing claustrophobia, of a family forever trapped with itself.) And a few of the costumes seem off; the purple velvet robes and flared collar of son Geoff register as campy, in an Irma Vep sort of way. Though his staging is generally efficient, O’Neill isn’t always clear about bringing out the play’s numerous subtexts—the homosexual undertones of one crucial scene are far too blurry to register clearly.

Rumor has it that weekend performances of Lion have been selling out—I’m happy for ’em—so be sure to book reservations in advance. Otherwise, you’ll be bellowing like a lion (in whatever season). Tickets may be booked online at:

http://www.classictheatre.org/

–Thomas Jenkins of Aquitaine, Current Theater critic.

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