It’s Christmas Eve at the Chateau de Chinon in 1183 (its pictured above as it looks today) — 6 years before Henry II’s death and his son Richard’s ascent to the throne ( ten years later, followed by youngest son John). Henry’s estranged wife Eleanor of Aquitaine has been freed from prison in London to come to Christmas court — and therein follows a (very fictional) account of a dysfunctional monarch family holiday, complete with mistress, quarreling brothers, and a fascinating look at a medieval royal family in upheaval (the play foreshadows eventual real-life history of who kills whom). It is said that the family members spend more time together in the same room in this play than they did in real life.
And that sets the stage for the delicious production of The Lion in Winter at the Williamston Theatre in collaboration with the theater department at Michigan State University. And oh, what a fantastic production this is! John Lepard has directed with a deft hand and a clear understanding of the history underlying the dramedy. Its a chess game played out with very real eventual consequences. He also understands the very funny script and the laughs abound throughout this production. Perfectly paced, two and a half hours fly by in what seems half that time.
John Manfredi portrays King Henry II with confidence and strength. Sandra Birch plays a superb Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their scenes together sizzle. As their sons, Michael Barbour (John), Andrew Buck (Richard) and Andrew Head (Geoffrey) turn in colorful performances that reflect their eventual roles in the drama of English Monarchy. Blaine Mizer is a fine King Phillip of France, and Katie Maggart turns in an excellent performance as his sister Alais (and Henry’s lover). The ensemble work here is superb.
But what makes this production work so well is the very smooth transitions from comedy to drama, often at the drop of a hat (or a knife, to be more specific here) — the pitch-perfect ability to switch from cat-and-mouse flirting to grab-them-by-the-throat hatred. Nowhere is this better evidenced than the show’s penultimate scene set in the cellar of the castle where Henry has imprisoned his sons. Once the knives arrive, the production shifts to all-out suspense, and despite the fact that I have probably seen this play in different productions at least a half dozen times, it still sent a shiver down my spine. Superb work all around, and it all starts with Lepard’s solid direction.
I had a very fun time at this show — I studied French history and love the way British and French storylines intersect in this show — and I can honestly say it is the superlative version of any I have seen. Bravo, Williamston and MSU.
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