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Tighter Staging will Save the King! – “The Lion In Winter” in Whittier

William Crisp as Henry II confronts his sons in Whittier's "The Lion in Winter"

William Crisp as Henry II confronts his sons in Whittier’s “The Lion in Winter”

On the short list of 20th century playwrights whose work I love in part because if their rich use of language, James Goldman is right up there. Take, as example, his play “The Lion in Winter.” In many ways it proves very talky, but this drama pitting King Henry II of England against his sons, his imprisoned wife, and the King of France remains a constant favorite because the characterizations are rich, and the talk is clever, fast-paced and unrelentingly poetic. It’s a feast for the both the imagination and the ear.

Yet this can all careen off the tracks if the pace is too slow, or broken up too much. Heat drives this play, and heat onstage dissipates quickly if not constantly fed. Which brings me to the new production at Whittier Community Theater. The cast is, particularly in the two most central parts, excellent. The costuming and feel of the piece are right. But constant breaks in the pacing, caused by the need to move furniture between each one of the short vignette-like scenes, make it excruciatingly long. In the process, that elemental heat cools.

This is fixable, but it will take some creative restaging along the way. That would be wonderful, because rather than listening to an audience groan at the length, it would be terrific to be able to embrace this show for all the things it does right. They are many.

William Crisp makes a terrific Henry – playing the elaborate game of political competition with relish, bringing a consistency to this medieval king even as he is wound-able, strong, afraid of aging, and admiring of intellect equal to his own. Candy Beck tackles the prodigious Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry’s wife, nemesis, equal, and prisoner let out for Christmas. In a subtle supporting role, and despite a somewhat questionable wig, Jamie Sowers proves on a par with these two powerful and powerfully played characters as the young Alais, sister to the King of France, raised at Henry’s court to be the next queen, yet become Henry’s mistress. Her subtle strength makes her less of a pawn than often played, leading to a particular inclusion in this fascinating trio.

The portraits of Henry’s three sons are a bit variable, though they power the piece when necessary. Colin McDowell’s Richard the Lionheart manages the mix of fragility and power necessary, but tends to deliver his lines in a comparatively hollow tone. Jonathan Tupanjanin makes Prince John just as much a spoiled child as is necessary. Thanks to one mention of his being pimply in the script, he has been given facial spots which look like large measles or major melanomas, and are very distracting. Acne is a bit more subtle, even onstage.

Brandon Ferruccio makes middle son Geoffrey as frankly devious as can be, becoming the most memorable of the sons. Despite another odd wig, Luke Miller makes the young king of France subtly mature and even more subtly as devious in his own way as Geoffrey. It’s an interesting take on the character.

Karen Jacobson and Nancy Tyler are to be celebrated for finding costumes which truly fit the characters and the time period. Set designer Mark Frederickson has created the impression of a medieval castle, which sets the tone, but as used may also be creating much of the problem.

In the hands of director Lenore Stjerne, every scene is centrally staged, and uses the entire set. This means that between each scene lights dim, stagehands come out and move furniture, place or replace candles, hang tapestries, etc. – a project which can take 3 minutes or so. That’s too long, as pacing is key to effectiveness in this play. The use of “trucks,” which allow the quick wheeling in and out of setting pieces, or simply isolating some scenes in one part of the stage which is preset for the purpose, would solve this show’s one major problem and let people go home about a half hour earlier.

And that would be good, because this version of “The Lion in Winter” is definitely worth seeing, especially for the performances of the two leads. Hopefully the timing glitches will be solved by the start of the second weekend.

What: “The Lion in Winter” When: through November 22, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with a 2:30 p.m. matinee on Sunday November 16 Where: The Center Theater, Whittier Community Center, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $15 general, $10 seniors/students/military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or

The Lion in Winter in small: a great play on the small stage

The cast of The Lion in Winter at Sierra Madre Playhouse in a moment of tension [photo: Gina Long]

The cast of The Lion in Winter at Sierra Madre Playhouse in a moment of tension [photo: Gina Long]

James Goldman plays and screenplays have a reputation for being talky. But what elegant talk! Take, as example, one of his best-known works, “The Lion in Winter.” Oscar-winning in film form, it does even better on the stage, where a slight claustrophobia adds to the tension of one dysfunctional royal family sequestered in a castle trying to sort out little details like succession. This particularly when we know, or think we know, many of the family members from legend and ballad.

In the new production at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, the smaller stage emphasizes this sense of captivity, enhanced as it is by Gary Wissman’s versatile, representational set. There, director Michael Cooper has gathered a cast ranging from good to very good indeed, all of whom live the characters they wear.

The story follows a gathering of English King Henry II’s family – three sons including Richard the Lionheart, the John who would one day be forced to sign the Magna Carta, and the middle son Geoffrey, a clever schemer whose fate was to never sit on a throne. They are there with the boys’ mother, the legendary Eleanor of Aquitaine, whom Henry has kept locked in a castle for years, Henry’s current mistress Alais, a French princess sent at a young age to be raised in the English court, and Alais’ brother Philip, recently become the King of France.

Philip wants Alais to either marry one of the sons, or for Henry to return her dowry. Eleanor wants Henry to certify Richard as his successor. Henry wants John instead. It becomes part political game, part tossing of threats, and part intellectual exercise. This, in a storm of articulate, memorable, quotable dialogue.

Adam Burch captures the determinedly solid warrior that is Richard. Clay Bunker gives Geoffrey the requisite wise-but-sneaky quality which makes him occasionally play chess with his brothers’ lives. James Weeks gives young John just enough of the spoiled and juvenile brat to make him irritating to everyone but his father. Macleish Day radiates youth and sensuality more than intellectual brilliance but makes that work as Philip. Alison Lani’s Alais stands back and analyses her status as political pawn, in balance with her simpler, explicit love for Henry, the man. All these characters work together beautifully to create the world in which the two towering characters must sling their arrows.

John Rafter Lee as Henry II, and Diane Hurley as Eleanor of Aquitaine [photo: Gina Long]

John Rafter Lee as Henry II, and Diane Hurley as Eleanor of Aquitaine [photo: Gina Long]

John Rafter Lee, at least from the waist up, makes a fine Henry – large and commanding, gentle and practical and deeply wounded by turns. If only he would pace and rock less, and stop shuffling his feet in a most unkinglike manner. As his combatant, equal, and wife, Diane Hurley makes increasingly fine work of Eleanor, finding the strength and intellectual power without ever becoming (as one has to be tempted to become) any kind of echo of Katharine Hepburn’s Oscar-winning portrait. It’s a strong performance.

The direction is tight, and the ensemble strong. Indeed, the only thing which tends to pull one back are Carlos Brown’s costumes. Fine on the women, several of the men’s costumes are poorly constructed, pooching out in distracting ways, unevenly sewn, and certainly not the kind of wear a king would put on.

Still, that aside, this is a good play given a reasonably fine airing. That delightful moment when Eleanor says to herself, in the midst of total upheaval, “What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?” gets just as much a laugh as ever. Indeed, this production finds the humor where it lives, and revels – as the play should – in the sheer, ferocious intelligence of its two central protagonists. Henry and Eleanor remain entertained by and appreciative of the superior intellects they use against each other. Dysfunctional they may be and ostensibly yearning for peace, but calm isn’t everything.

What: “The Lion in Winter” When: Through November 16, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W.Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 seniors/students, $15 children under 12 Info: (626) 355-4318 or

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