So you think your family is dysfunctional during the holidays? I can almost guarantee theyve got nothing on the Plantagenets.
The family gathered in 1183 at a castle in the English-ruled French region of Chinon, setting the scene for James Goldmans The Lion in Winter, the latest offering by Thingamajig Theatre Company in Pagosa Springs. King Henry II brings together his wife, Eleanor of Aquitane, whom he has imprisoned for a decade, and their three living sons: Richard, Geoffrey and John. The eldest son and heir, Henry has died, and Henry II must appoint a new heir to the throne, someone who will keep his empire intact. He prefers the youngest, John, while Eleanor favors Richard.
Henry also brings his young mistress Alais, who was raised by Eleanor and came to live with the family as a girl. She is the sister of Phillip II, the young King of France, who also is in attendance at the family gathering to remind Henry that Alais must be married to his heir or her dowry (the region of Vexin) returned to France. The story takes place on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Goldmans play, originally written in 1966, is an extended argument among family members, a power play. Each character has a rapier wit, sharper than the swords and daggers also drawn during the production. The poisoned barbs and piercing epigrams reminded me of contemporary sitcom television, such as Two and Half Men, where each person tries to outwit, outhurt and outpierce the other with their tongues.
Its a smart play, and the dynamics twist and turn and unfold slowly. Or maybe its more like a Comedy Central roast, only in The Lion in Winter, every character is trying to outdo the other and roast the other. As Richard says of John: They threw away the baby and kept the afterbirth.
The play is humorous. At one point, John is horrified when his warrior brother Richard pulls a knife on him. Eleanor responds, Of course he has a knife. He always has a knife. We all have knives. Its 1183, and were barbarians. To which the current day audience observes that it is not the physical knives that do such damage but the hurtful language and really, how different are we today than these barbarians?
Typical for Thingamajig Theatre Company and artistic director Tim Moore, they have chosen a difficult and multilayered play thats not easy to pull off. It requires actors to embody characters with wit and to sling barbs with ease.
There are subtle shifts in Alais and Philip, who initially are more innocent and meek and grow into their ruthlessness throughout the course of the play. Anna Hershey and David Trudeau play these characters uniformly. Hersheys Alais is a bit more emotional, while Trudeaus Philip is stoic until he knows he has the upper hand.
Tim Moore is an unlikable Richard (as he should be). Robin Hebert is the cold and scheming Geoffrey and Elliott Harwood the weak, spoiled, sullen John. All do an affable job.
Throughout the play, Alais is used as a pawn, a possession to be traded, bartered and given. Kings, queens, knights everywhere you look, and Im the only pawn. I havent got a thing to lose that makes me dangerous, she says.
We see in Eleanor a woman of authority and presence who has accepted her fate of imprisonment, yet continues to scheme against Henry while also loving him and trying to regain his favor. As Richard tells his mother, Youre so deceitful you cant ask for water when youre thirsty. We could tangle spiders in the webs you weave. Yet Henry respects her as a rival. He says of Eleanor that she is an aesthete and a poet. You worship beauty and simplicity, he says.
Thingamajig Theatre Company brought Kurt Brighton from Denver to play Henry II, and he is greatly manipulative, spontaneous and emotional in the role. Henry is not the great strategist he likes to believe he is, but one maneuvered by the scheming Eleanor, portrayed by the petite yet powerful Kristal Fortune. Trudeau and director Pat Payne also are from Denver.
The costumes and set were acquired by Thingamajig from the Arvada Center and are gorgeous and appropriate. Karina Silver adds to the set with a hand-painted checkerboard floor to complement the dark stone of the castle. Heavy furniture is carried in and out for each room, and the transitions are a bit slow, but they dont detract too much from the action.
The real theme of the play is summed up in a statement by Eleanor: We are the killers. We breed wars. We carry it like syphilis inside. Dead bodies rot in field and stream because the living ones are rotten. For the love of God, cant we love one another just a little thats how peace begins. We have so much to love each other for. We have such possibilities, my children. We could change the world.
She seems to be the wise woman, yet she cant change her own behavior. But she hasnt yet given up hope. She and Henry continue to hope they never die. And yet, she tells him, Theres everything in life, but hope. However, the viewer is left wondering if some shred of hope isnt what keeps Eleanor going, isnt what keeps the tit and tat of this family together. If their bickering isnt the only form of love they know how to express.
As Eleanor says, In a world where carpenters are resurrected, everything is possible. And the audience leaves the theater believing there might be some redemption for this dysfunctional family and, therefore, perhaps our own.
Leanne Goebel is a freelance writer and member of the International Association of Art Critics. Reach her at [email protected]