The Lion In Winter is the latest offering from Court Theatre, directed by one of Chicago’s most established maestros – Ron OJ Parson. Though James Goldman’s script was penned in 1966, its subject matter takes us almost a millenia prior, to Christmas Day, 1183 in King Henry II’s Castle in France. King Henry II, played with robust fervor and soft tenderness in equal measure by John Hookenager, finds himself surrounded by jackals who thirst for his throne on all sides. The jackals in this case, just so happen to be his immediate family.
The Lion in Winter is the kind of slow emotional bloodsport that many of us may recognize from our own family holidays. For a play infused with so much intrigue and subterfuge it makes for surprisingly pleasant holiday viewing. While most of Chicago’s stages are littered with elves, puppets, knee-high stockings, and Tiny Tims, Court has programmed something riskier. It pays off. This play is as timely as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and I can’t imagine being this engaged by the script at another time of year, which is a testament to theatre’s unique ability to be enhanced by its timing. It’s not enough to have a great play, it has to be done at the right time, for the right people.
The play opens with King Henry II in a loving embrace with his mistress, Alais Capet, a French princess intended to be married off to one of his sons in exchange for a large dowry. Alais, played by Netta Walker, is as wily and strong-willed as she is beautiful, and she urges Henry to keep her, to pay the dowry, to do whatever is necessary. Most essentially, Alais wonders about the obstacle of Henry’s dear estranged wife, Eleanor.
The way the onstage characters speak of the formidable Eleanor of Aquitane, you would think she was a terrifying figure. Rebecca Spence’s portrayal of Eleanor could not be more sugar and sweetness when we first meet her. Soon, we will understand just how biting she can be as she successfully manipulates the events of the world. It’s hard to blame her for trying to get her way. King Henry II has imprisoned her in the castle, and chosen her former ward (Alais) as his lover. In fact, the only reason Eleanor can be in this play at all is because the family is home for Christmas.
The most painful part of the Queen’s manipulations is that they are emotionally true. When she hold Alais close, or tells her sons she would kill for them, you can tell the other characters believe her cannot give her what she wants at risk of manifesting their own ruin.
The Lion in Winter is a tangled web of desires, and it’s fun to figure out what value each character represents. John, the youngest son, is played by Kenneth La’Ron Hamilton, recently seen as Orpheus in Eurydice. While Orpheus was all about love as the highest value in a beautiful and lyrical way, John is all zits and grasping hands. It’s fun to see Hamilton’s range, and though he mewls at his mother and father, sometimes with surprising vehemence, the heart of his portrayal of John is bolstered by a genuine yearning for acceptance and love.
Shane Kenyon plays the fierce Richard Lionheart, and his long warriors’ braid and rugged appearance tell us a lot before he opens his mouth (costumes by Christine Pascual). The oldest brother, Lionheart has a lot of secrets he’s been keeping from the family, and Kenyon’s bombastic declarations make for some of the most gasp-worthy moments in the play.
The scheming middle brother Geoffrey is great at accounts and policy, but really, he just wants a little glory. He’s constantly in the midst of having to support his brothers schemes and volleys for the throne, and sets out to cause a little chaos of his own. Brandon Miller is sleek and funny as Geoffrey, but also gives the audience slight reprieve from the drama through his dry wit.
The Lion in Winter is as deceptively hilarious as it is cruel. I found myself cracking up at particularly hurtful insults, and laughing unexpectedly when I realized a character was joking about a circumstance that would usually be life or death. It has that wonderful thing that plays from the 1960s really nailed: a group of people with inextricable ties, trapped in a room for a short amount of time, causing each other as much pain as possible over a holiday meal or dinner party. Ron OJ Parson is a fun choice to direct this production because he is so good at visually communicating subtext and quietly shifting power dynamics. One of my favorite moments is when Henry and Alais bring light to the dim dungeon, strategically lighting the candelabras in sync, their harmonious power a force to be reckoned with. There is no dialogue whatsoever about Henry choosing a side in that scene that I recall, but I knew at that moment which side he was on.
John Hoogenakker’s King Henry II took me a little time to warm up to, but that is because the play is long enough for him to take the time to build a three dimensional character. It was near the end of act one that I realized how much effort Henry was putting into keeping his family happy, and that peace and legacy were at the root of his machinations. By the end of act two, Hoogenakker is summoning his most Kingly voice, and his final declaration leaves no doubt in my mind who in this play truly deserved a kingdom.
The Lion In Winter is playing at Court Theatre through December 3rd.
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John Hoogenakker – Henry II King of England
Rebecca Spence – Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of England
Anthony Baldasare – Philip Capet, King of France
Kenneth La’Ron Hamilton – John, the youngest son
Shane Kenyon – Richard Lionheart, the oldest son
Brandon Miller – Geoffrey, the middle son
Netta Walker – Alais Capet, a French princess
Ron OJ Parson – Director
James Goldman – Playwright
Linda Buchanan – Set Design
Jared Gooding – Lighting Design
Christopher Kriz – Sound Design / Composition
Nick Sandys – Violence and Intimacy Consultant
Martine Kei Green-Rogers – Production Dramaturg
Becca McCracken – Casting
Jaclynn Joslin – Production Stage Manager
Katrina Herrmann – Assistant Stage Manager
Michael Brosilow – Photography