By Bridgette M. Redman
If you want to feel better about your family’s holiday gatherings and the dysfunction that is hung like holly on a tree, take a trip to Williamston Theatre in the next month. The Plantagenets are sure to make you feel just a little more warm and fuzzy about your own relations.
Directed by John Lepard, Williamston Theatre is producing a wickedly biting version of James Goldman’s “The Lion in Winter.” Set in 1183, Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine battle over which of their three sons – Richard, Geoffrey or John – will take the throne after the old lion of a king passes on. Thrown into the mix is the young king of France, Philip, and Alyss, betrothed to Richard and mistress of Henry.
Leading this cast in the role of the king and queen of England are John Manfredi and Sandra Birch – two highly worthy adversaries who command the stage and every moment on it. They are so committed to each parry and thrust that the audience is pulled into believing their words even when everyone tells you they lie and scheme. Each denouement and twist becomes more intense than the one before, because they so convincingly sell you that this time they are putting it all on the table and mean what they say.
Between them, every line zings, and they know just how to move between each emotion in a game of ever-changing stakes.
Manfredi couldn’t fit more comfortably in the skin of the powerful monarch. His boys are all a shadow of the man that he is. Henry II is a king who has conquered all his adversaries except those in his own family, and he battles them with as much passion as any foreign enemy. He is equally strong and vulnerable, giving the audience glimpses of the man behind the king, the heart inside the lion.
Birch is more than his equal. She hates and loves with passionate fervor. Her courage matches his, and she battles not only to achieve her will, but to wreak revenge on the man she once loved. She owns the subtlety of each line, the physicality of an aging queen who is still stronger than her offspring.
These two were meant to rule the world, and it is beyond poignant when Eleanor acknowledges that they have done a big thing badly.
It is hard to feel anything but pity for Katie Maggart’s Alais, who cannot begin to compete with these two giants. Maggart gives us the Alais, who is sweet and pliable with just enough backbone to keep her interesting to Henry. The French princess is a pawn who will never compete with the queen, because she cannot give her lover the challenge that his wife does. Maggart finds that exquisite balance of a young girl caught between two monarchs who may adore her, but will use her for their own purposes. She tries to make demands, but lets her love and affection rule her.
The three sons and the French king feel almost one-dimensional compared to the depth of their elders. Andrew Buck’s Richard is sullen and makes few emotional swings or choices. Michael David Barbour’s John is animated and played with great energy. He makes one wonder how such a king as Henry could ever favor a boy as whiny and childish as his youngest son. Andrew Head’s Geoffrey is scheming, and inherited more of his parents than either of them are willing to admit. He carefully chooses which moments to reveal himself, and comes across as one of the most sympathetic of the brothers for his motivation and resentment is always clear.
Blaine Mizer is well-cast as the young king who wants to play with the big boys. He gives Philip just enough poise to make the audience wonder whether his tutelage under kings is enough to give him the strength to succeed against Henry.
Amid all the battle for provinces and crowns, there is a family that would love each other if they could summon up even a little bit of trust. Lepard ensures that the underlying story shines through the battles. The king and queen battle so furiously because once they loved each other and could see nothing in the world as bright as their partner’s glory. They are parents whose children are their life, even though they have wreaked havoc upon their offspring.
It is a period piece, and costumer Amber Marisa Cook finds the appropriate tunics to provide the flavor of 1183, while Megan Wilkerson’s set is flexible and spartan. But neither of these elements overpower a story that could as easily be set in any period.
“The Lion in Winter” is a dark comedy that takes family drama onto a royal scale. There are powerful performances elevating this biting script into a production filled with pain, humor, hope and despair.
‘The Lion in Winter’
Williamston Theatre, 122 S. Putnam Road, Williamston. Thursday-Sunday through Feb. 23. 2 hours, 25 minutes. $15-25. 517-655-SHOW. http://www.williamstontheatre.org