Medieval Made Modern

Winding Road Theater's 'Lion in Winter' is a winner

The Lion in Winter, now playing in a winning production by the Winding Road Theater Ensemble, has all of the trappings of a rich Shakespearean drama.

The pitch-perfect setting—in the wood-beamed sanctuary of Christ Presbyterian Church, with a large, medieval map of Europe as a backdrop—imparts an air of historic reverence. The gorgeous 12th-century costumes by Christopher Allen are full of detail. And the characters have grand, vaguely familiar names, such as Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine.

But from the moment Henry opens his mouth in the very first scene, it becomes increasingly clear that this is not Shakespeare. There is no poetic formality to the language; there's no dusty, antique vocabulary keeping the listener at a distance. Phrases like, "You're first class," and, "What's on your mind?" pepper the dialogue.

No, The Lion in Winter premiered in 1966. Its author, James Goldman, might have dressed his creation in medieval garb, but at heart, his play is a contemporary tale of family dynamics. The wit is honed to razor-sharpness, and the stakes are life and death.

Those who have seen the iconic film adaptation of Goldman's play will enjoy watching Tucson's talented performers bring their own interpretation to the roles. And anyone unfamiliar with the story is in for a treat, because Goldman's writing is the best kind of popular entertainment, combining mental stimulation with engaging characters and laugh-out-loud humor.

The core of the play is a broken love story between Henry II, the first King of England, and his estranged wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine—estranged, because he keeps her under house arrest in a distant castle for inciting insurrection.

It's Christmastime 1183, and Henry has gathered his family to decide which of his sons will inherit his kingdom. In their perpetual struggle to best each other, Henry and Eleanor use the opportunity to manipulate their children. It's an activity that seems to give them both a great deal of satisfaction—until their children begin to make decisions of their own.

Henry is a contradictory man: a scholar who's a brute; a brilliant tactician who's impulsive; and a perpetual philanderer who prizes loyalty above all.

In the person of actor Terry Erbe, Henry carries no stately air of royalty. He seems like a regular, blue-collar family man, skilled in stage-managing the domestic drama around him. Erbe has a natural jocularity that softens the sometimes cruel machinations of his character.

Henry is well-matched by the calculating, razor-tongued Eleanor (Lesley Abrams). In spite of her scheming, though, it is difficult not to feel sympathy for the queen. Reviled and mistrusted by everyone, she seems a prisoner of her own destructive habits.

Abrams relishes her role, manipulating every situation and lashing out with the play's funniest lines. But her performance is most compelling in the silent moments, when she watches her husband interact tenderly with his mistress, and when she sees the consequences of her own actions unfold.

Each hoping to inherit the throne are Henry and Eleanor's three power-hungry sons: Richard, Geoffrey and John.

Richard, the eldest, is a fierce warrior. Christopher Johnson plays him with a perpetual rage, held within a cold, sinuous exterior. Ever ready for a fight, he's out of place within the confines of the castle, preferring the field of battle even though his will is as strong as any in his family.

Steve Wood is Geoffrey, the clever but overlooked middle child. Geoffrey is a schemer, switching allegiances in a heartbeat to gain the upper hand, but Woods makes it clear that he is driven by a lifetime of perceived neglect by his parents. He seeks power, but primarily to prove that he is not his brothers' inferior.

The youngest, John, is his father's favorite, although the reasons are initially unclear. As performed by Paul Matlock, John is funny, but also petty, selfish, dimwitted and gullible. Matlock does not look the character's age, 17, but he perfectly captures a teenager's naiveté, self-importance and over-confidence in his own wisdom.

Joining this happy family for Christmas is King Philip II of France. His half-sister, Alais, was betrothed to Richard 14 years earlier, at the age of 8, and he has come to demand either their wedding or a return of the dowry. Now an adult, Alais has become Henry's mistress, and Henry is reluctant to lose her.

Played by the talented Nick Trice, the French king is every bit as conniving as the others. Trice's Philip doesn't converse so much as engage in verbal swordplay. He parries, thrusts, cuts through niceties and plays to win. His unsympathetic character helps the audience understand that Henry and his brood have formed their hard edges for a reason—to survive in a brutal world.

Finally, there is Alais, who refers to herself as the only pawn in a castle full of kings and queens. Too willing to trust others, Alais is poorly suited to the toxic environment.

Amy Erbe captures both Alais' determination and her helplessness. She repeatedly asserts her intention to choose her own path while she's increasingly aware that she is powerless to do so. Erbe makes clear each moment of discovery as Alais learns to play by the palace's rules, from joining in expressing contempt for Eleanor to eventually demanding the execution of her enemies.

Director Glen Coffman keeps the play moving at an exciting pace. He excels at sparking the dramatic fireworks, but he doesn't quite overcome the play's melodramatic weaknesses. The characters often leap between emotional extremes, but their motivations are often unclear. And when they spin lie upon lie, it's impossible to distinguish between sincere emotion and emotional manipulation. Nevertheless, Coffman keeps the play crackling along, and any such problems fly past, quickly forgotten as the plot unwinds.

The result may not be Shakespeare, but it combines the spectacle of costume drama with the comedy and flair of the best contemporary entertainment.