Review: Shady Shakes’ ‘The Lion in Winter’ is a battle for supremacy

Henry II is a quirky guy. He comes across as pretty unassuming, but in actuality, is a driven sort. And while he certainly won’t win any husband-of-the-year awards, he has a certain charm, someone that lives on the larger edge of pragmatism.

Shady Shakespeare’s “The Lion in Winter,” which closed on Saturday, June 23rd, was a delightful production with some nice performances by its principals, who certainly balanced out the highs and lows of their characters with just the right mix of emotional demands.  Characters found the humor out of some truly absurd situations.

James Goldman’s script, which had its New York premiere in 1966, is a bit tricky to follow but has a witty flair and features lots of intellectual jibber-jabber. The play is set during Christmastime in the year 1183. Henry II (A commanding turn by Larry Barrott), the first of a long line of kings from the family of Plantagenet, an era that ended in 1485 with Richard III, is dealing with the passing of his eldest son.  In the spirit of King Lear, a parallel that is readily acknowledged in the drama, Henry must decide who is going to move forward as the new ruler. Summoned to the family Christmas is Henry’s three remaining boys: The graceful warrior Richard (Paul D. Albora), the unloved good son Geoffrey (Thomas Schneider) and Henry’s preferred, yet flawed choice John (John Murphy). Also coming back from a ten-years and counting prison sentence is the matriarch, Eleanor of Aquataine (a wonderfully pithy Beverly Griffith).

To further complicate matters is that King Philip (Spencer Crawford) is looking to make sure his sister Alais (Johanna Hembry) has a line to the throne through Richard, but an affair between herself and King Henry throws that dynamic in tatters.

The production, which worked very well on a compact Hoover Theatre stage, did lots of nice things. Director Dinna Myers shaped nicely some key moments in the drama and the play itself flowed smoothly on Shawn Andrei’s tight set. Scenes between Henry and Eleanor, keys to the through line of the show, exploited nicely the intellect of each character. It was a wise choice to create a rich subtext throughout their scenes, and there was a clear understanding that each character is after something so big that it will shape more than 300 years of the monarchy. Particularly effective were some dazzling punches to the audience’s gut, such as when Henry simply states “I’m an old man in an empty place – be with me.” Or when Eleanor remarks about the difficulty to see her husband so love another, and when Henry bemoans the loss of his sons at the end of Act I.

Another particularly effective moment is a private conversation between Richard and Eleanor. The conversation as well as some nuanced Oedipal touches by Griffith, almost serving as a seductress to her conflicted son. And as nice as the moment was, a key transition between the two a few moments later left something to be desired.

The transition in that moment, from anger to vulnerability, ended entirely too quickly for consumption. In addition, the one thing where the play wasn’t always effective was in the way scene changes moved through space. To be sure, there were plenty of locales on a tight stage, and moving from scene to scene felt a bit clunky.

“The Lion in Winter” is most effective in its grace. Goldman’s script is full of little morsels and nuggets, and is actually quite funny in a comedy of manners way. And if there was this much drama during Christmas of ’83, I would love to see what these wild and wacky folks had planned for Christmas of ’84.

Shady Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “The Lion in Winter”
Stars: 3.5 out of  5
Written by James Goldman
Directed by Dinna Myers

Shady Shakes will be presenting “King Lear” and “Pericles in repertory beginning Friday, July 27th through September 2nd. For more information and tickets, visit the official website.

King Henry II (Larry Barrott) and his estranged wife Eleanor (Beverly Griffith) are locked in a battle for supremacy in Shady Shakespeare’s “The Lion in Winter.” (Photo by Shady Shakes)

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