It’s well into the holiday season and there’s a chance you’ve either had or will have a tense family dinner. No matter your family situation, you’re probably not going have as tense a Christmas as King Henry II and his family. In James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter, Henry, his wife, his sons, and his mistress all gather round for a fun holiday of constant manipulation and harsh betrayals. PICT Classic Theatre opened their new production in the appropriately castle-like Union Project in Highland Park, and they invite you to spend a tense holiday with a family that will most likely make yours seem better.
Henry and his wife, Eleanor, have quite the estranged marriage (he imprisoned her). But he invites her back to the castle on Christmas for some verbal sparring and to reveal his plans for his heirs. The eldest son, Richard, is a bold warrior and his mother’s favorite. The youngest, John, is weak and childish, yet is his father’s first pick. The middle son, Geoffrey, is very clever but feels ignored by both parents (middle children, right?). Also over for the holidays is the new young King of France, Phillip, and his half-sister Alais, who is betrothed to a son but is Henry’s lover. It’s a complicated situation as parents, children, and lovers try to deduce if there is any real love between them and who is just a pawn in the political game.
Alan Stanford and Cary Anne Spear head things as Henry and Eleanor, capturing the utter contempt but also admiration the two have for each other. As the most senior members of the family the two are experts at “the game” they play, and the actors create characters that relish in the manipulation and putting on of “scenes’. Henry and Eleanor are very clever, and as such have some of the more biting lines in Goldman’s genuinely funny script. The history between them is fascinating: they both claim to have never loved the other, yet their love of the game suggests there may be affection there somewhere, even if they wouldn’t admit it. If a married couple could be called “Frenemies”, it would probably be Henry and Eleanor.
Their sons are more easily broken. Tony Bingham’s Richard is physically intimidating and hotheaded, more prone to angry shouting than his brothers. Matt Henderson’s John is an annoying little twerp, but his childlike reactions bring a lot of humor to what could otherwise be ultra-heavy scenes. Gregory Johnstone as Geoffrey is the best thinker, no doubt inherited from his parents, but is ironically overlooked by them. Geoffrey has an air of smarm that masks some real hurt and, like everyone else, his breaking point can be reached. Karen Baum and Dylan Marquis Meyers play Alais and Phillip as strong young people who are still probably in over their heads, new players in a cruel game.
PICT places its audiences in the castle with just a few simple touches. The set features a giant table in the center that serves to be whatever furniture the character’s need. A downed chandelier serves as a rack for characters to hang their crowns or jewelry off of when they’ve retired to their “rooms”. The audience sits on either side of the big table, and John Shepard’s direction has made it so no action or facial expression is missed out on depending on where you’re sitting. Costumes are just elaborate enough to suggest royalty without weighing down the actors or distracting from the story.
If you’re unwilling to sit through your holiday dinner and argue about whatever horrible politics with your family, why not go see The Lion in Winter and watch horrible politics unfold in front of you? The royal family is probably funnier than yours anyway. It’s another solid production from PICT, so I would recommend seeing it before the real winter hits.
Pittsburgh Irish-Classic Theatre’s production of The Lion in Winter runs at the Union Project in Highland Park through December 17. For tickets and more information click here.
Special thanks to PICT for complimentary press tickets.