One thing to remember while watching the royal machinations of the early Plantagenets currently unfolding on stage at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, MI is that, while they could have happened, they most likely did not, especially in the format so entertainingly played out by stars Kim Zimmer and Robert Newman.
Like most historical sagas, the James Goldman drama has a basis in fact, well, semi-fact at least, and it also contains a good deal of humor, albeit 12th century humor, which makes it highly entertaining on a modern level.
Fact: King Henry II (Newman) and wife Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (Zimmer) had one of history’s most storied love affairs, the result of which was eight children, five boys and three girls. The three living boys (times were hard in the 1100s)— Richard, Geoffrey and John — are the subjects of discussion during the Christmas celebration at Henry’s castle in Chinon, France.
The debate, at time extremely heated, circles around just who will wear the crown once Henry is no more. The king favors John (William Dunn), the youngest; Eleanor’s favorite is Richard (Jamey Gresham), the oldest; and Geoffrey (Jabri Johnson), in the middle, attachés himself to whichever brother seems to be winning — and it fluctuates rapidly and often.
Caught in the middle is Alais (Audrey Morton), half-sister of King Phillip II of France (Quinn Moran), who has been at court since her betrothal to Richard at age 8. That was 7 years ago and she has since become Henry’s mistress,
So you can see there are a lot of problems to be addressed and, hopefully, sorted out before the final candle is extinguished.
Under the direction of Brendan Ragotzy, and following the always-dynamic leading players, the flickering lights illuminate rivalries, passions and not-so-hidden secrets.
Played out on one of Samantha Snow’s best set designs (which puts the “Les Miz” turntable to excellent use), the shifting shadows of Mike McShane’s lighting plan are beautifully soft or sharp as the mood demands.
There was no doubt on Tuesday (opening night) that the audience had come to see the stars. Newman and Zimmer were paired for decades on the former CBS daytime drama ”Guiding Light” but if the aim was to see Josh and Reva “together again,” the fans were at least somewhat disappointed.
What they got instead were two detailed performances by two experienced actors who. In very short time, became — believably — the multi-layered monarchs of a kingdom in flux.
And if, in theater, familiarity breeds … whatever … it is a real pleasure to watch them work. Feinting, parrying, slashing and stabbing, they provided verbal action to a script that allowed them little chance for physicality.
Both characters admitting they had little love for their offspring, there was no doubt that the fire that brought them together was still at least smoldering, fanned by the determination to be the winner in the intricate maneuverings that would eventually result in a crown.
Henry’s bellowing and blustering is stymied at every turn by Eleanor’s muted machinations. The “boys” prove that, even then, the apples didn’t fall far from the parental trees. Gresham was stoically planted while Dunn shifted with every encounter. Johnson fought a losing battle but was difficult to hear. The same is true of Moran, the slippery sovereign who hoped to win no matter who wore the crown.
As Alais, Morton is the most sympathetic figure and drew a moving portrait of the princess who would be the loser no matter who “wins.”.
It has always been a mystery here that Henry would choose John, a whimpering, whining, cowardly teen, as his successor. Also, if Eleanor was imprisoned for 10 years for her part in the attempted overthrow of Henry in 1173, why not the same for the boys who revolted with her?
Whatever the answer, “The Lion in Winter” at The Barn offers a good chance to see a very entertaining play (historically factual or not) presented by a solid company lead by two of the area’s favorite actors.
THE LION IN WINTER plays through Aug. 6 in the theater on M96 between Galesburg and Augusta, MI. For show times and reservations, call (269) 731-4121.