The cast of The Lion in Winter was superb.
It’s Christmastime 1183, and King Henry II (Jeffrey King) has finally accepted that he’s getting old. He’s built an empire and with it a legacy, neither of which he’s ready to relinquish. To make matters tougher, he’s not exactly thrilled about his successor options…albeit it they’re his three sons, Richard (Grayson DeJesus), Geoffrey (Wilson Bridges), and John (Kurt Hellerich).
Henry married one of Europe’s greatest heiresses, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Carol Schultz), but she too isn’t exactly a spring chicken. Henry has eyes for Alais Capet (Angela Janas) now, not that Eleanor cares much. She’s used to his mistresses, plus she’s too busy scheming to worry over matters of the heart—a sentiment true of the rest of the family as well. If she had her way, Richard would take the throne; however, Henry has always had a fondness for John, as childish and unintelligent as he may be. As for Geoffrey, well, neither of his parents care much for him. The family’s utter dysfunction plays into the hilarity of various alliances and subsequent feuds that arise. Although the play has its fair share of serious moments, laughter follows each such scene with splendid comedic timing.
Fortunately for anyone who snoozed his or her way through history class, you don’t need to come into the theatre with any knowledge of medieval England to enjoy The Lion in Winter. You do, however, need to be in a listening mood, as it’s a dialogue-heavy production with limited physical action. James Goldman wrote the piece in the 1960s with the goal of presenting historical characters with the personalities he imagined they had, based on his studies. The result is at once brilliant, fascinating, and laugh out loud funny.
As a production with very little action, The Lion in Winter didn’t require a grand set, so only the simplest of changes are made between scenes. One of my favorite aspects of attending a show on the main stage is seeing how the large space is utilized, so the minimalist approach was a bit disappointing. They’re in a castle, after all! However, as I said, this creative decision made sense.
Fortunately, the space was filled with something better than props—stage presence. The cast of The Lion in Winter is superb. The audience clearly shared Henry’s love for John, not because we thought he deserved the crown, but because Hellerich played him so well. Of the brothers, he was the source of comic relief. Hellerich captured the essence of a spoiled, youngest child and moody teenager perfectly. The show’s stars were Daddy and Mommy dearests, Henry and Eleanor. King and Schultz play neither a happily married couple nor an unhappily married couple. Their dynamic is significantly more complex. Henry and Eleanor interact a bit like two athletes on rival teams. They have a competitive camaraderie, yet occasionally exhibit a friendly fondness for one another. She’s ultimately his nemesis but admires her tactical strategies. I’ve never seen chemistry quite like theirs. Schultz is a Rep veteran, last seen in The Winslow Boy. Clearly it’s still very early in the year, but her performance, in particular, will be hard to top. | Megan Washausen
The Lion in Winter runs at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through January 31. For ticket information, visit http://repstl.org/.
Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.