Highly Recommended *****
Despite seeing the superb cast listed on the press release, I was skeptical of Promethean theatre’s ability to mount a successful production of James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter as I entered the historic Athenaeum theatre, given the difficulty in producing a convincing medieval set in a small studio, and the acute awareness many patrons will have of the iconic film starring Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn. I couldn’t have been more surprised or delighted. The moment I entered the relatively small studio on the second floor, my expectations were immediately raised. Two large arched wooden doors appeared at the center of the stage surrounded by stone that looked fresh and medieval, and gorgeous and authentic-seeming tapestries lined the walls (Jeremy Garret and Jeremiah Barr) Even the “pre-curtain” lighting (Jessica Fialko) was promising.
Brian Parry’s Henry II is an amazing and paradoxical mix of brutal masculinity, embodied in his contempt for his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Elaine Carlson); affection for his mistress and son’s fiancé: Alias (Heather Smith); love for his the ghost of his friend Thomas Becket, for whose murder he was more than likely partially, if inadvertently, responsible; and his inexplicable preference for his slow and weak son: Johnny who he desires to succeed him. Perry portrays is Henry with breathless energy and Parry’s usually consummate skill. Still, when appropriate, he yields to Carlson’s fascinating performance of the fascinating Eleanor of Aquitaine, and she very much the anchors this play.
I do not feel that it is hyperbole to say that her performance nearly rivals the four-time academy award winning Hepburn’s. She is able to seamlessly lays out for the audience what is probably the most dysfunctional family dynamic in English history before the reign of Henry VIII while fighting for her son Richard to succeed Henry over Henry’s unlikely choice of Johnny. All the while, she displays an ability to shift rapidly between comic jabs, mainly at Henry’s expense and an occasional tenderness for him, as well as a sincere, if complex, one for his mistress, and a constant maternal attachment to each of her children whomever she might prefer or what resentments they might hold against her.
The superb period costume design and make-up (Rachel Sypniewski) make her plainer than Hepburn, but this only served to highlight her character’s strength and acerbic wit which is delivered with a perfect balance of rapidity and verisimilitude while simultaneously mixing it with sincerity, tenderness, and occasional bouts of melancholy at her situation, despite her vivacity and Eleanor’s legendary strength. Eleanor and Henry’s children: Richard (Jared Dennis), Geoffrey (Nick Lake), and Jonny (Tom Murphy) are perfectly cast respectively as clever and ambitious; level-headed and practical; and whining and weak and each executes their part with precision. Dennis, in particular, does a good job of downplaying the discredited historical theory that Richard was a homosexual without compromising its importance in Goldman’s the plot. Fialko’s lighting was a perfect mix of steady ambience and when required theatrical intensity and meaning. All and all this production certainly lives up to its cinematic counterpart, if not exceeding it, with considerably more humor (I couldn’t find a single excised joke) and passion. Other than the clumsy and unrealistically quick exits, director Brian Pastor’s blocking, as well as the many other aforementioned facets that I am sure he helped bring to this production, is creative and fresh with each actor standing at the side of the stage when the others are engaged in moving the play’s narrative action.
The Lion in Winter is Playing through May 21st in studio 2 of the Athenaeum Theatre, located at 2936 S. N. Southport Avenue, Chicago.
Thursday 7:30 p.m.
Friday 7:30 p.m.
Saturday 7:30 pm
Sunday 2 pm
Mondays 7:00 Pm.
There is understudy performance on Monday May, 9th. Regular tickets are $24.00. Tickets for Seniors are $19. Tickets for Students and Children are $14. They can be purchased online at www.prometheantheatre.org, by calling the box office at 773-935-6875, or in person at the Athenaeum box office.
To see what others are saying, visit www.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-Up and click at “The Lion In Winter”