The Lion in Winterby James Goldman. Directed by Robert Moss.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Well, what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?"
Jayne Atkinson and Treat Williams; photo Abby LePage
Stop to think about it: if Ozzie and Harriet had offered a third son on their television program would Ricky Nelson, now the middle son, have stood a chance in the music business? We know that David, the elder, stood little chance of a career worth watching. He was handsome and pleasant and never a threat to anyone. Ricky, on the other hands, was ambitious, clever, snarky in a modestly 1950s way and always on his way to somewhere.
Take that scenario and add in the third brother, a sort of "leave it to Beaver" kid and you have a good idea of what James Goldman put together in "The Lion in Winter." It’s a television sit-com crossed with a television soap opera, set in the 12th century and as Mama, estranged from her family for plotting against her husband (Harriet Nelson hiding the cherry pie in another person’s kitchen and expecting Ozzie not to discover this indiscretion) says, "Well, what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?" That is just about how substantive Goldman’s play is. And it is a comedy, with plenty of witty remarks and belly laughs as promised and no one dies and the foibles of the important folk are exposed to each other who love to mock the inadequacies of their nearest and dearest.
In this play Mother’s a bitch, Daddy’s a bastard, the Mistress is a mistake, and the three sons are unequal idiots, while the visiting king is a tramp. Something for everybody. It’s hard to believe that this is all based on real people and true incidents and historically accurate circumstances; to make it all seem just so much theatrical pap the author made up the entire framework of this play: these real people never lived through this Christmas holiday.
I actually like this play, admiring it for its flaws as much as for its writing. Goldman turned in some very worthwhile dialogue in this play and created very memorable characters who always maintain their identities and their individuality. The author uses contemporary English to create his own version of Shakespearean Elizabethan speech. Sometimes the lines seem to be intoned rather than spoken and no alternative rendition is ever possible. There is a beauty to that and a strange clarity as well. However, he often changes mood and modality at the same sudden moment leaving us wondering who a character is and what and why and wherefore and for an instant the play is gone and we are struggling to get it back.
On the main-stage in Stockbridge, Massachusetts at the BTG’s Berkshire Theatre Festival, this play has opened the season. It stars Treat Williams as King Henry II, a role originated by Robert Preston, revived by Laurence Fishburne and filmed with Peter O’Toole. Obviously important actors want to play this part. Henry’s estranged wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine is played here by Jayne Atkinson; the role originally featured Rosemary Harris, was revived with Stockard Channing and was filmed with Katherine Hepburn, again a roster of important actresses.
Treat Williams has enjoyed a quirky career with roles on Broadway such as Danny Zuko in "Grease," and the Pirate King in "The Pirates of Penzance." His films from "The Ritz" and "Hair" through "Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead" are equally unpredictable. His Henry the Second of England and half of France gives him a new dynamic, equally quirky, playing a man who seemingly cannot be honest with anyone and yet is obsessed with knowing the truth about other people’s intentions. That he can pull this off without seeming drunk (as O’Toole seems to be in the film), is absolutely amazing. I found I could believe every turn, every fallback, every rage even when the words he uttered made no sense to me at all. His ability to render the hard-to-grasp into tiny gems of wisdom is marvelous. If we ever have a king in this country I nominate Treat Williams for the job. His pronouncements would assume the shape of real leadership. He is a treat to watch in this role.
Jayne Atkinson has the grace and charm of her predecessors in the role of Eleanor and she has something more. She adds the glamor of the French Queen that Eleanor was before cuckolding her husband for Henry and having her marriage annulled as unconsummated (this, after bearing Louis six children, all girls). She moves with a dancer’s grace, speaks with an actress’s honeyed tones. She manipulates men and women with sheer brilliance. She emanates attitude. Her queen in exile on holiday is magnanimous and shrewd at the same time. The abruptness of her mood changes, and her verbal exchanges in which she shifts position and point of view in an instant are remarkably real in her hands and voice. Atkinson and Williams are a perfect married couple, like Ozzie and Harriet and just like this TV royalty, Henry and Eleanor always know how to soothe, please and hurt one another in a witty and painless manner.
As their three sons with aspirations we have Aaron Costa Ganis as Richard, Tommy Schrider as Geoffrey and Karl Gregory as John. They bring to life the two future kings of England and the ineffectual middle son who actually has it all but is simply ignored. All three men handle the uniqueness of each character very well.
Tara Franklin plays Alais, the girl that two of them seem to be engaged to who is really their father’s mistress (no, Ozzie never had one of those but in one show people thought he did). She does well with the sex and romance of the character but at moments seemed a bit mature for the part. That, however, could just be the way the part is written.
As the King of France Matthew Stucky creates a young man whose sensuality seems able to get the better of him. Without half trying he makes himself into a member of the family, almost the fourth son who has died. Stucky moves with lynx-like grace and speaks in a honeyed voice that lends itself to the illusion of Philip’s bi-sexuality.
The true star of the production though is the set designed by Brett J. Banakis. To watch its transitions through the nine scenes of the play is wonderful. Each set is defined by the rigidity of the design and the changes wrought to it along with the triumph of the wine cellar and its ultimate alteration. The costumes are by David Murin who uses them to define the characters they adorn. Solomon Weisbard provides lighting that sometimes oversteps its boundaries but basically keep the mood of the work intact. Scott Killian’s sound work is just what the play needs to keep it an understandable evening.
Robert Moss has taken the flaws in Goldman’s script and worked with them as well as anyone could. Even drenched in shadow each character stands out as himself and no one else which is the trademark of a good director. His actors have seemingly given him control and the reins here could not have been in more professional hands.
I enjoyed "The Lion in Winter" and I would encourage others to take the plunge and witness for themselves the power of television and the equal power of Shakespeare’s as those two schools of entertainment commingle and combine. I assure you that no one uses the word "forsooth" or begins a speech with a stammering "Um, oh, gee, uh, well, yes, Harriet." Although, if history takes you on a ride through the wintry wild of suburban Illinois that is just the way of this play, so sit back and enjoy the wit as you learn a few things about jolly old England. . .and France.
Karl Gregory as John; photo: Abby LePage
Matthew Stucky and Tommy Schrider; photo: Abby LePage
The Lion in Winter plays at the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Festival main state, located off Route 7 in Stockbridge, Massachusetts through July 13. For information or tickets call the box office at 413-997-4444 or go on line at www.berkshiretheatregroup.org.