Wednesday, January 11, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "The Lion in Winter" at North Coast Rep

Comedy of Heirs

The cast’s the thing that keeps North Coast Rep’s “Lion” roaring and raging

By Donnie Matsuda

To commemorate its 30th anniversary season, North Coast Rep is bringing back an oldie but goodie from its inaugural year: James Goldman’s classic (but comical) play, The Lion in Winter. This quintessential drama about royal family feuding is chock full of regal rigmarole, Plantagenet plotting, and a mordant wit that won’t quit. And in North Coast Rep’s case, they have taken this clever, literate comedy and mounted a handsome revival that features a cast of bravura actors who do a magnificent job of bringing Goldman’s medieval tale to modern life.

The Lion in Winter originally opened in New York in 1966, running for 92 performances and garnering two Tony Award nominations. It is probably better known for its subsequent film adaptation in 1968 starring Katherine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole. Since then, it has become an American classic and favorite of regional theatres across the country, namely for its ability to contemporize the drama inherent in the real-life 12th century royal family of King Henry II of England. With familiar (and familial) themes, keen historical intrigue, droll humor, and brazen banter, Goldman has struck gold (yes, I know its cheesy, but roll with it) with his winning script – even if there isn’t much of a story to be told.

The Lion in Winter

The cast of "The Lion in Winter" at North Coast Rep. Photo by Aaron Rumley.

Speaking of story, the plot of the play is relatively simple. The year is 1183 and it is Christmastime at King Henry II’s castle in Chinon, France. The entire royal family has gathered for a Christmas court to decide who will become heir to the throne. Henry has even let his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, out of prison for the special occasion (it was he who imprisoned her in the first place for conspiring with his sons to lead a revolt against his rule). Like all parents, Henry and Eleanor play favorites as to which of their three sons they want to take over the kingdom: Henry wants John, the youngest and whiniest of the three sons, while Eleanor favors the eldest and most ambitious son Richard. Of course, the overlooked middle child (is there any other kind?) Geoffrey bears the brunt of the battle but continues to fight for some recognition, even though he has no chance of inheriting the throne.

Meanwhile, there is a subplot that involves King Phillip of France and his stepsister, Alais. While Alais is supposed to be wed to eldest son Richard, it seems that Henry is having too much fun romping with her in the royal hay and may take her for his own, much to both the chagrin and delight of Queen Eleanor. Yes, this fractured family definitely puts the “fun” back in dysfunction.

The Lion in Winter

(Left to Right): Richard Baird, Kyle Sorrell, and Jason Maddy in "The Lion in Winter" at North Coast Rep. Photo by Aaron Rumley.

In the end, the play is really a character piece that here features some impressive acting from a uniformly game cast. At the head of it all is the calmly commanding Mark Pinter as Henry. Pinter has an incredibly impressive acting range and imbues his Henry with just the right balance of robust ambition, clever commentary, and calculated restraint. In his multifaceted performance, he motivates every shift in thought and feeling and captivates as he acts (and reacts) to those around him. And then there is the tour-de-force performance given by veteran actor Kandis Chappell. While she is gifted with some of the best lines in the play (“What shall we hang – the holly or each other?” and “It’s 1183…we’re ALL barbarians!”), her superb acting chops are put to great use here as she embodies manipulative matriarch Eleanor with cold calculation and edgy steeliness.

In addition, Richard Baird as the ruthless and determined Richard, Jason Maddy as the frustrated and disgruntled Geoffrey, and Kyle Roche as the parent-pleasing but ultimately useless John are all outstanding in their supporting roles. Special mention is also due to Kyle Sorrell (who is perfectly cast as young King Phillip) and Alexandra Grossi (who is sincere and straightforward as Alais).

The Lion in Winter

(Left to Right): Jason Maddy, Kyle Roche, and Richard Baird in "The Lion in Winter" at North Coast Rep. Photo by Aaron Rumley.

Director Andrew Barnicle returns to North Coast Rep after a more than two decade hiatus (during which time he served as artistic director of The Laguna Playhouse). He should be commended for his stately direction and for giving his actors the space needed to fully realize their complex and controlling characters. Overall, he has extracted a dynamic and nearly seamless ensemble performance from his top-notch cast.

And it wouldn’t be 12th century England without some spectacularly regal costumes done up with plenty of pomp and circumstance by designer Renetta Lloyd and a majestic, multi-layered castle ingeniously designed by Marty Burnett.

All in all, North Coast Rep’s The Lion in Winter is everything one could want in a reigning monarch: handsomely designed, smartly written, and brilliantly executed.

Things to know if you go: The Lion in Winter plays at North Coast Repertory Theatre through February 5th, 2012 (ALREADY EXTENDED!). Running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes with a 15 minute intermission. Performances are Wednesdays at 7pm, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm and Sunday evenings at 7pm. Tickets are $32-$49. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (858) 481-1055 or visit

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