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Lion in Winter: Long Day's Journey into Knight

lion in winter

John Rafter Lee and Alison Lani

James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter is an actor’s actor piece of theater. The 1968 movie adaptation with bravura acting by Peter O’Toole as England’s King Henry II and Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine left an indelible impression on me when I was a boy. The supporting (!) cast included Anthony Hopkins as Richard and future James Bond Timothy Dalton as King Philip. Lion received four Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture, Anthony Harvey for Best Director and O’Toole for Best Actor (he’d also been nommed for playing the same role, Henry II, in 1964’s Becket opposite the likewise nominated Richard Burton, in another brilliant screen adaptation of a play). Hepburn picked up one of those coveted golden statuettes for Best Actress and Goldman won a Best Writing Academy award.

So with much anticipation I strode my trusty steed (okay, so it’s a Toyota) to the newly refurbished Sierra Madre Playhouse to see the theatrical version of this medieval drama, which had premiered on Broadway in 1966. And your stage scribe is pleased to report that he was not disappointed.

John Rafter Lee and Diane Hurley -- two veteran legit thespians -- deliver bravura performances as the title character and his imprisoned, estranged wife Eleanor, whom Henry has permitted to leave her house arrest during the Christmas holidays of 1183. She joins Henry at the royal court in his castle in Chinon, France (the French-born British monarch presided over an empire), where their three sons are gathered as the 50-year-old grapples with the thorny issue of succession. The lads vie with one another to become the heir to the throne -- the eldest, Richard Lionheart (Adam Burch); the overlooked middle child Geoffrey (Clay Bunker, who appeared in the screen adaptation of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged); and teenaged John (James Weeks). Despite being the youngest and the least sharp rapier in the scabbards, John for some reason seems to be the affection-starved Henry’s favorite. (It never crosses their noggins that maybe the peasants should, you know, like vote on who shall lead them.)

Joining this big, if not so happy family are France’s King Philip (the Machiavellian Macleish Day) and Henry’s mistress, the French Princess Alais (Alison Lani, here making her auspicious L.A. stage debut), whom the conniving if convivial Henry hopes to marry off to one of his sons. Thrown into the mix, this makes for a most combustible concoction, as they scheme with one another over who will be the man who would be king, who will wed Alais and so on. There are more conspiracy theories here than in an Oliver Stone movie. Above all, the devious Eleanor and Henry match wits, as they eternally plot against one another.

It all plays out like a Eugene O’Neill drama set in the Middle Ages, although the relatives in question have vast powers and domains at their disposal, as their family business is a kingdom. So, in addition to love between spouses, parents and children and the like, the temporal stakes are far greater than, say, for the Tyrones in O’Neill’s masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey into Night. But beneath it all are all too human frailties, not least of all being the need to be loved, although it is all writ large because the throne is at stake.

This all makes for plenty of sparks a-flying and witty dialogue (the play is much funnier than the film version, which I remember as a drama). Although based on actual historic personages, Goldman’s lines sometimes seem very contemporary and ahistorical -- for example, did the English in 1183 really know there were apes in Africa? Perhaps, but I’m not so sure.

lion in winter

John Rafter Lee and Diane Hurley

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In any case, after almost three hours (with one intermission), the conspiratorial verbal one-upmanship becomes somewhat tedious. However, this is not the fault of the acting, as the ensemble is ably directed by Michael Cooper. I think the problem lies with the type of characters portrayed.

During the Middle Ages European royalty reigned due to “divine right monarchy,” which more or less held that those born of “noble blood” were pre-ordained to rule by god. (Well, la-de-dah!) But what Lion’s action, characterizations and dialogue reveals is that rather than somehow being superior to the rest of us mere mortals, the monarchs are instead merely more bloodthirsty and avaricious than ordinary people are. Like today’s 1%-ers, they may think they are our social betters because they are smarter than the 99%, while in reality they’re not more intelligent -- just more cunning than the masses because they’re motivated by greed, lust for power, etc. Ever has it been so, from before 1183 to our own Gilded Age of wild wealth disparity. What kind of person needs to constantly trump others, from King Henry, Eleanor of Aquitaine to Donald Trump? So, it does become tiresome to watch these “Type A”, alpha personalities compete for dominance for nearly three hours, because truth be told, they’re just a pack of royal assholes.

Albeit, as said, well-acted ones. Having vented the above tirade I nevertheless highly recommend this production on the boards of the new rake stage at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, which is sloped upwards away from the aud, making the players seem truly larger than life. After three Greek tragedies in a row without a toga in sight, the period costumes designed by Carlos Brown delight the eye. (Hint to artistic directors -- if a theatergoer wants to see modern dress all he/she has to do is peek outside his/her door and walk down any street. When ticket buyers plunk down their hard earned buckeroos to see a period piece they want the stage to act like a time machine and transport them long ago -- and far away.)

Sammy Ross’ cleverly designed lighting imparts the sensation of flickering candlesticks, which is period appropriate. Gary Wissman’s set likewise helps auds to willingly suspend disbelief, although the backdrop of a plain curtain becomes a bit dull, and a faux tapestry would serve better (wrote the blithe critic who doesn’t have to pay for it). Also, sitting near the front, when the actors “poured” wine it was apparent there was no actual liquid flowing into those handcrafted ceramic goblets by Joan Aebi, which undercuts the realism of an otherwise naturalistic show.

Ed Rampell

The play has a gay theme that I didn’t remember from the 1968 film -- perhaps because as a kid this just flew over my head. In any case, Cooper told this reviewer that it was indeed in the movie -- but “downplayed.” Like the movie I saw long ago, this theatrical production is memorable. This Lion roars, providing lovers of live performance with a rip-roaring, uproarious night of thee-a-tuh that transforms the Sierra Madre Playhouse into a veritable lion’s den of drama amidst the jibes.

The Lion in Winter is being performed through Nov. 16 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m.; Sundays at 2:30 p.m. at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre, CA 91024 For more info: (626) 355-4318; .

Ed Rampell

Sunday, 29 September 2013