The set-up: James Goldman's play The Lion in Winter had a respectable run of 92 performances on B'way in 1966, with Rosemary Harris winning the Tony Award as Best Actress, but it only became an international stage hit after the release of the 1968 film starring Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn.
Often revived, the brilliance of its witty invective and psychologically acute struggle for power is always good, and in the right hands, it becomes great. King Henry II of England is celebrating Christmas and is joined by his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, freed from royal imprisonment for the holidays, and also by the visiting King of France, and by Henry's three sons, each scheming to succeed him on the throne.
The execution: The compelling set immediately generates the medieval atmosphere (it is 1183): stone pillars, arches for entrances, doors of massive timber, arrases to hide behind while plotting, and light filtered as though through a cathedral window. The magic has begun before the lights dim for the play to start, which it does with a deceptively simple scene between the 50-year old Henry, old in those days, and his mistress Alais, 23. Then Eleanor enters, and we are swept into a vortex of deceit, lies, double-dealing, knives drawn and sheathed, and vanquished protagonists seizing new stratagems to reverse defeat.
Heady indeed, and a delight for the ear and for the eye, for the cadre of actors chosen by director Julia Traber fleshes out these characters and makes them come alive with excitement. The intellectual duel between Henry and Eleanor is the heart of the play, but here the sons more than hold their own. Steven Fenley plays Henry II and captures the force of his personality, the bluster of his authority, his love of Alais and deep feeling for his youngest son John. Pamela Vogel plays Eleanor with vivacious energy, a quicksilver mind, and emotional depth, and one is gripped by every word, for you know well each one is calculated.
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Matt Hune plays John, usually portrayed as spoiled, weak and insignificant, but here transformed by Hume into a compelling portrait, as Hume has added shadings of charm and appeal, and made him a worthy though devious contender for the throne, using his weakness as a weapon. Matt Lents plays King Philip, still a youth, and we see him profit by observing the sly deceits swirling around him. Lents is superb in his climactic scene with Henry, performed with all the style and wit a playwright could ask for.
Sean Patrick Judge plays Richard, the tested and brave warrior, and brings a stalwart presence and a commanding voice that one can well imagine inspiring troops. Joshua Estrada, who was so good as Yvan in Art last year, plays Geoffrey, the middle son and described as brilliant, but playwright Goldman hasn't provided the evidence, and Estrada copes well with an underwritten role. As Alais, Caroline Menefee has the youthful beauty required, and is excellent in capturing the stiffening of her spine as she too learns to assert herself and fight for her own desires.
This is a production in which everything works, where each element seems to fit and to enhance the whole. The striking set is by Trey Otis, the magnificent costumes are by Adam Alonso, and the subtle and admirable lighting design is by Eric Marsh. The casting and direction are outstanding, and Julia Traber has succeeded in creating a powerful ensemble, so authentic that I felt like a time traveler, back in the castle with these very real and extremely complex and fascinating individuals. The verdict: Clicking on all cylinders and with a driving force and sharp wit, this is a dynamite production, and has to be one of the very best of an already good season. See it to savor how good theater can be.
The Lion in Winter continues through February 17, at Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline Rd. For information or tickets, call 281-583-7573 or contact www.texasreptheatre.org.