If you go
“The Lion in Winter”
Matinees, evenings to Feb. 5
North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach
By Diana Saenger
North Coast Repertory Theatre’s “The Lion in Winter,” is so well-done, what’s happening in the castle of England’s Henry II in 1151 comes vividly to life on stage only moments into this intriguing and funny play, directed by Andy Barnicle.
As it opens, beautiful choral music breathes life into the impressive bedroom scene, featuring regal red curtains set against large stone walls (created by NCRT’s amazing scenic designer Marty Burnett) and the audience is immediately transported.
King Henry adores his mistress Alais (Alexandra Grossi), but has not cut his ties to his wife Eleanor (Kandis Chappell) whom he has forbade to leave the castle for years. It’s Christmas time and Henry’s sons are also at court. Richard (Richard Baird), Geoffrey (Jason Maddy) and John (Kyle Roche) are present to hear from their father’s own lips who will succeed him as King.
Henry has turned 50 and knows he must name his heir. As the story moves forward, he’s as wily and shifty as a snake. At one moment he’s professing his love to Alais, and the next, passionately kissing Eleanor.
The three sons have no compassion for one another or their parents. Henry first announces that youngest son John is his choice to be King and to marry Alais so Henry will have her at hand. But even Henry knows that John does not measure up to his brothers.
“I’m the family nothing,” John tells his mother. “Geoffrey’s smart and Richard is brave and I’m not anything,”
Writer Goldman’s strategy is to show the worst in every character by revealing their bad traits, but then tilt a good side for virtuous measure. It’s a brilliant character study and this cast is exceptional at playing it out.
Henry is always unpredictable and Pinter (Off-Broadway, “My Sweetheart’s the Man in the Moon,” NCRT-“Becky’s New Car”) swaggers in every instinctive moment.
The actors who portray the sons are superb both in their serious moments and sillier ones when articulating Goodman’s funnier dialogue. Baird (“Cyrano De Bergerac,” NCRT “Ghosts”) stands tall and robust with a lionhearted attitude throughout his role. His mother tries to make amends with him – the boy she favored – but he will have none of it. “You are Medea to the teeth … and old enough to die,” he tells her.
Geoffrey is the middle son and ignored by both parents. Maddy (“Angels in America”) does a fine job in showing he detests them both. When Eleanor questions his love, he responds, “God forgive me, I’ve upset the Queen. Madam, may you rot.”
Roche (“Proof,” “One For The Road”) shows his skills as young John. He’s whiney, immature, and often makes no sense, which only ups the humor. Kyle Sorrell as King Phillip, and Grossi as Alais, hold their own in the cast.
However, it’s Chappell’s Eleanor that gives Pinter a run for the title of best actor in this play. She can turn on and off the charm as quickly as she can become an observant icicle, pretending to really care about her sons, while really struggling to save her own skin.
And she delivers many of the play’s funniest lines straight from the heart. When Alais is softly humming on Christmas Eve, Eleanor turns away from her and says, “No one else is caroling; it might as well be Lent.”
“The Lion in Winter” is thoroughly entertaining as it conveys family situations and difficult relationships, and somehow turns those conditions around, to offer insight and humor as the final word.