Delicious banter, power grabs and manipulation drive 'The Lion in Winter'
Who: Springs Ensemble Theatre
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Jan. 19, 24-26 and Jan. 31-Feb. 2, 4 p.m. Jan. 27 and Feb. 3
Where: Springs Ensemble Theatre, 1903 E. Cache La Poudre St.
Tickets: $15, $10 student RUSH tickets with valid ID at the door five minutes prior to show; 357-3080, springsensembletheatre.org
If the leads in James Goldman’s “The Lion in Winter” used Facebook, their relationship status would have to be that “It’s complicated.”
In the 1966 play about a severely dysfunctional historical family, King Henry II of England and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, court each other with vicious one-liners, one upmanship and motes of affection. While the author describes the drama as a comedy in two acts, director Sarah S. Shaver cautions that while it does have funny moments, it is no Neil Simon comedy. It’s more of a “menacing comedy,” she says. The first show of the Springs Ensemble Theatre’s new season opens Thursday.
It is Christmas and time for Winter Court in the year 1183. Henry, who has imprisoned Eleanor for the past decade, allows her release for the family festivities and to join him as they decide which of their three sons will become successor to the throne, a fraught decision. Each has a favorite among the flawed men, who beg and threaten their parents for the ultimate power. The arrival of King Philip II of France and Henry’s burning affair with mistress Alais Capet, who is also Philip’s half-sister, add a few more snares to the situation.
“This play is exciting. It’s juicy, meaty. It has great text,” Shaver says. “The games are not a battle of strength, but a battle of minds, equally matched minds. Eleanor and Henry are a fascinating study in status machinations.”
Although a crown is at stake in "The Lion in Winter," the dynamics at play are likely familiar: A dysfunctional family that hates and loves in equal measure. Perhaps that why Goldman’s play has seen numerous stage productions as well as his adaptation to film in 1968. That film, which starred Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn, won three Academy Awards, including Goldman's first and only Oscar for screenplay adaptation. Hepburn won an Oscar for Best Actress.
“The Lion in Winter” was pitched to Springs Ensemble Theatre with an Eleanor already in mind: local actress Amy Brooks. Shaver says that the company wanted to work with her and believed she and Mike Miller, who stars as Henry, would have “great on-stage chemistry."
“It’s a constant power play,” says Brooks, who played a less volatile queen in TheatreWorks' summer production of "Love's Labor's Lost." “They take pleasure in wounding each other. It’s like a Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor relationship: The couple that can’t live without each other.”
Aside from what Mike Miller calls, “the sweet feeling of watching somebody be miserable,” there must be a dance between bringing such unlikeable characters to life, and also maintaining the audience’s empathy and attention.
“We all have masks, but showing the cracks in those is key to making the characters vulnerable,” says stage manager Emily Christensen, one of SET’s newest members.
But it's not going to be black and white, says Brooks.
“All of (the characters) are hateable, and all are given a chance at redemption,” says Brooks. “If you judge the characters at face value, they are rotten to the core, but at the same time, they’re human. That is one of the pleasures of doing the play - playing the humanity.”