Studded with good performances and an expressive set, James Goldman’s “The Lion in Winter,” directed by Michael Ross for the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre, shows us how holidays are the great levelers, viz, they offer an occasion for the same sort of bickering and squabbles that affect royal families as much as common folk.
It’s a Christmas play, season-appropriate, a welcome respite from tales of treacly miracles. Set in 1183 at King Henry’s (Steven Biggs) castle at Chinon, France, we witness what happens when a King can’t decide what to get his family for Christmas. He’s got three headstrong sons: Richard (Travis MCHenry), Geoffrey (Gregory Spradlin), and John (Matthew Riggle). Each expects the crown but obviously only one will get it. He’s got a wife, Eleanor of Aquataine (Diane Benedict). She wants to be free, to regain her lost territory, to rekindle her marriage but Henry had put her in prison a decade before so he could consort with his mistress, Alais (Kate Woodruff).
Via staging and performances, Ross nailed the contrasts between empire and family, greed and compassion, corruption and honor. David Scaglione’s set conveyed a maximum of regal splendor with a minimum of means. The lines are clean and geometric, like a Florentine Renaissance cathedral. The tone was quiet, composed, and even tranquil, which contrasted nicely with various clashes between headstrong personalities and their ad hoc alliances. Besides the modest Christmas decorations, three empty, oval doorways towered against the backdrop, each symbolizing the as-yet unfulfilled destiny of a son who would or would not become King. As a humorous aside, Alais commented that, with all the chess pieces that surrounded her – Kings, Queens, Knights – she was the only pawn. Indeed, the set resembled a chessboard, orderly, geometric, yet housing all manner of offensive and defensive stratagems, all of which were designed to either checkmate a King or force a stalemate. Despite the effective staging, one note rang ham-fisted and false. In a demonstration of a special relationship between Richard and Philip (Adam Hale), the King of France, Light Designer Andrew Vonderschmitt’s turned the three ovals pink, a camp touch that diminished the dramatic potential of that moment.
The acting was flawless, it felt genuine and true. As good as the individual performances were, their pairings were even better. Biggs’ Henry might be blustery, omnipotent, and kingly, but he was also worried what would happen to his realm after he was gone. Benedict’s Eleanor may have pined for her faded beauty (at first she refused to look in the mirror); but what she may have lacked in appearance she more than made up in elegance, poise, and an instinct for survival. With her sunny good looks, Woodruff’s Alais was, for the moment anyway, unjaded and, because she could bear heirs, she was valuable to the King. With his shaved head, McHenry’s Richard, was the warrior. Taut, coiled, and half-unhinged, he was as likely to chop off your hand as shake it. Riggle’s John may have been Daddy’s favorite in terms of affection but he had yet to prove his mettle. The wild card was Spradlin’s Geoffrey, the Machiavellian, behind the scenes schemer.
Biggs made Henry the perfect foil for Hale’s Philip. One was scruffy, the other looked as if had yet begun to shave. One was wily though tottering, the other coltish and, once he learned the game of bluff and bluster, would wield a mean scepter. The relationship of Henry and Alais was complex, if a little one sided. He was imperious, assured of having his way; though she wasn’t necessarily weak, she did accommodate him. In one memorable scene, she stood up to him, telling him she wouldn’t bear him any heirs because his rapacious, hell-bent sons would assassinate it.
The three brothers were exquisitely drawn; it was clear that each possessed individual qualities inherited from one parent or the other. McHenry’s alpha male Richard; Riggle’s untested, untried, and in the end, unchosen John; and Spradlin’s weather vane Geoffrey, who didn’t move until he felt which way the wind was blowing.
But the most spectacular casting was that of Biggs as the King and Benedict as his Queen. Intellectually, experientially and, especially, psychologically (all of which translate into prowess at chess), they were peers, the only difference being that Henry was better at the game of empire and matrimony. Their exchanges consisted of constant declarations of love, of fealty, of affection each of which was immediately undercut by perfidy, machinations, and deceit. The most powerful moment in the play was the moment that Eleanor claims to have slept with Henry’s father. Her pantomimed caressing of her father-in-law’s body and Henry’s subsequent emotional and, almost physical collapse constituted a priceless theatrical moment.
The production shows that words are as fragile, flimsy, and vulnerable as gift-wrapping paper thrown in the hearth. The contrasts didn’t so much highlight dynastic family factions but show the consequences when war was declared on true feelings and clear lines of action. Promises made, promises broken, admissions of affection articulated and then discarded, plans made, plans tossed aside. At the end, when the King and his Queen are holding each other, we realize that the story wasn’t about who was going to succeed Henry but whether or not Henry and Eleanor could agree on anything. Here, they finally did: that they had made one unholy mess of Christmas.
Performances are Fri. & Sat., 8 PM, Sun, 2 PM. The show runs until Dec. 11. Tickets are $20-25. The Playhouse is located at 5021 E. Anaheim St. For more info call 494-1014 or visit www.lbplayhouse.org.