Theater Review: The Lion in Winter at Gorilla Theatre

The first problem is that Goldman finds no moral significance in the struggle for succession which makes up most of the plot. As we watch Eleanor and Henry tangle over this issue, we look in vain for any clue that one son deserves it more than another. But no one does: Richard, Geoffrey and John are presented as egotistical brats who only want power for its own sake, and Henry and Eleanor are equally uninterested in good government or the fate of their subjects. With no reason to prefer one contestant over another, the central battle in Lion eventually becomes a meaningless dogfight, and we have to look elsewhere for a subject that touches us personally.It’s not easy to find. For all the eloquence of Goldman’s writing, nothing much changes over the two-and-a-half hours of his play. There’s almost a regicide, almost an infanticide, almost a marriage, almost an heir-designate — the list of major events that are trumpeted and then don’t happen stretches from first moment to last. And when I say “trumpeted,” I mean “trumpeted”: there are more shouting matches in this play than in a dozen others combined.

Goldman’s Henry is the greatest culprit: he bellows, he erupts, he emotes to the mountaintops and rends the heavens with his fervor. Actor Hooker makes all this vociferating credible — Henry just happens to be a creature of deep feeling, we conclude — but even so, it’s exhausting. We want so much sound and fury to signify something. It doesn’t — and by the second act, we can’t help but see it as mere grandstanding.

Still, there’s much that works nicely in this Gorilla production. Lynn Moore is engaging as Henry’s mistress Alais Capet, sister of the French king and the designated fiancée of one or another of Henry’s sons. Alais is the only emotionally attractive character in the drama, and Moore plays her with a lovely gentleness that earns our affection quickly and definitively.

Giles Davies as Henry’s son Geoffrey is also delightful: he just can’t figure out why it’s his two brothers who are fighting for the inheritance when, after all, he’s a prince as much as they are. Nic Carter plays King Philip of France as a supercilious dandy who’s always looking out for number one, and Joe Winskye portrays Richard as a crude and pompous oaf who’s not above murder if that’s his only recourse. Only Jon Gennari as Prince John doesn’t quite make sense: it’s hard to understand why Henry favors him as the future king, or, for that matter, what sort of human being he’s supposed to be.

Nancy Cole’s direction is intelligent, and Eric Haak and Megan Byrne’s set — the interior of a castle — is exceedingly attractive. Jen Cunningham is the designer of the various medieval costumes.

So what’s it all about? Lion strikes me mostly as a vehicle for performers, an opportunity for acting in the grand, vehement style. But for the audience, it falls short: there’s no one to believe in, no one to root for. Henry’s a self-dramatizing loudmouth, his sons are selfish and ambitious, and even Eleanor, for all her complexities, doesn’t stand for anything beyond herself. Watching them go at each other, we’re watching a skirmish in which nothing’s at stake for anyone other than the combatants. You’d hardly know that there’s a populace out there, that people’s lives may be in the balance.

This is one lively entertainment.

But I’m afraid that it’s meaningless.

The best thing about The Lion in Winter at Gorilla Theatre is Caroline Jett’s spectacular performance as Eleanor of Aquitaine.

I’ve seen Jett on local stages several times, but even so I was unprepared for her splendid work in James Goldman’s play. Jett’s Eleanor is clever, regal, coy, self-possessed, untrustworthy, funny, indomitable and in despair. She knows that her holiday visit to her husband’s castle will only be brief and that soon enough she’ll be placed in captivity again, but she doesn’t let this fact interfere with her royal dignity — or her wit. Even when her husband has bigger moments dramatically — and Robert Hooker plays Henry II with great, booming swagger — Jett’s Eleanor dominates our attention. Henry is all passion and power, but Eleanor is something much more complicated and affecting, a lioness testing the limits of her cage, a female Samson searching out what strength might be left to her. If acting were enough to make a play successful, Jett’s performance would make this one more than satisfying.

But it’s not, and the faults are all in James Goldman's 1966 script (basis for the celebrated 1968 film starring Katherine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole).

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