Theatre Reviews
The cast of The Lion in Winter. Photo by Joey Rumpell courtesy of The Midnight Company

“The Lion in Winter” is a show that's often associated with its two leading roles--and they are great ones. Still, as The Midnight Company is showing in its current production at the .ZACK Theatre, as directed by Tom Kopp, this is an ensemble piece with great roles for all of its players. With its mixture of drama, suspense, intrigue, and humor, this show provides an ideal showcase for a strong collection of first-rate local performers, who are all at the top of their game.

This play is also one that's often more associated with the screen than the stage, considering the high-profile, award-winning 1968 film and 2003 television adaptation. It's a fascinating play, however, and one that has strong roles for its ensemble. It's essentially a fictionalization of history--an imagination of real historical characters in situations that make for an intriguing study of character, as well as an exploration of the scheming machinations that can come with royalty and royal ambition. The story centers on English King Henry II and his estranged, imprisoned wife Eleanor of Aquitaine--who has been temporarily let out of prison for Christmas--along with their sons Richard, Geoffrey, and John. The well-crafted script by James Goldman explores the various ways Henry and Eleanor use to manipulate one another to get what they want, as well as the schemes, ambitions, and disappointments of the sons. There's also the new, young King of France, Philip, who also figures into the various schemes to attain and maintain power, land, and influence; as well as Philip's sister Alais, who was brought up by Eleanor and now, as a young woman, is Henry's mistress as well as a promised fiancée for whichever son becomes King, as Henry favors the young, immature John and Eleanor favors the soldierly Richard, with the shrewd Geoffrey often treated as an afterthought. Through the course of the story, schemes are made, secrets are revealed, and much emotional manipulation ensues, as the characters jockey for position and struggle to secure their ambitions, future security, and in the case of Henry and Eleanor, their legacies.

While the story is fascinating and the dialogue is incisive, the biggest attraction of this show is the sheer strength of its characters. For The Midnight Company, the casting is ideal, with excellent ensemble chemistry, exquisite performances, and no weak links. Byers and Hanrahan are superb in the leads, with Byers especially shining as the determined, often disappointed Eleanor. The scenes these two share crackle with energy and a mix of conflicting emotions, serving as the centerpiece of the plot. The sons are also ideally cast, with Joel Moses as the warlike Richard showing an inner vulnerability, John Wolbers as the scheming Geoffrey displaying a scheming intelligence, and Ryan Lawson-Maeske excellent as the petulant, entitled John. Shannon Campbell as Alais develops the character with believable strength as the story unfolds, and Michael Pierce plays Philip with credible regal bearing and assertiveness.

Technically, the production impresses with a suitably Medieval look and atmosphere, aided by Brad Slavik's well-appointed unit set and Liz Henning's impeccably detailed costumes. There's also good use of period-styled Christmas music in the scene transitions and original music by Susan Kopp, and appropriate atmospheric lighting by Tony Anselmo. The production utilizes the sometimes difficult space at the .ZACK Theatre especially well.

“The Lion in Winter” has proved to be an excellent choice for The Midnight Company. With its well-chosen cast and effective staging, this is a show that plays all the intrigue with just the right pitch, not overdoing it but not underplaying it either. It's a marvelous showcase for a great cast.

Performances of "The Lion in Winter" from The Midnight Company continue at the .ZACK Theatre until October 21. For more information:

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