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With their passionate, full-blooded performances as England’s King Henry II Plantagenet (1133-1189) and his once-devoted wife now turned implacable enemy, Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204), Ira David Wood III and Lynda Clark make Theatre in the Park’s current presentation of The Lion in Winter roar. As they publicly bicker and privately scheme over who will succeed 50-year-old Henry on the English throne, Clark and Wood bring playwright James Goldman’s colorful and immensely complicated characters to full, glorious life. They snarl and squabble like a lion and a lioness fighting over the choicest parts of a fresh kill.
Lynda Clark plays Eleanor like an aging vixen, imprisoned lest she continue to foment rebellions against Henry and banished from her philandering husband’s life except for appearances sake at Christmas court. Clark’s Eleanor is a virtuoso performance. This Eleanor is every bit a queen; but her sulfurous disdain of her faithless husband hides a residual flame of tenderness towards him in her heart. She just cannot extinguish that flame, no matter how much hate Henry’s shameless manipulations generate.
Wood is likewise terrific. He gives a bravura performance as an irascible aging monarch determined to choose a successor who can hold together the kingdom that he has cobbled together with his guile and his sweat and his blood. Henry is equally determined that Eleanor’s choice to succeed him, their hotheaded eldest son Richard Lionheart (James Miller), will never occupy the throne.
Perversely, Henry insists on elevating his favorite son, his smelly, pimply faced, nose-picking youngest boy John Plantagenet (Thomas Porter), to the kingship, with more capable but always-overlooked middle son Geoffrey Plantagenet (Ira David Wood IV) to serve as chancellor and run the country for 16-year-old John.
When the new 17-year-old French king, Philip Capet (Zachary Armfield), shows up at Henry’s castle at Chinon, France, at Christmas time, demanding that Henry marry his sister, Alais (Haley Lynch), to Richard as contracted 16 years ago — or return her dowry, Henry is in a dreadful bind. He needs the money and land of that dowry; but he wants 23-year-old Alais, who has shared his bed for the last seven years, for his own.
James Miller is good as the petulant Richard, who doesn’t take rejection well and sulks and stomps around the castle waiting for mother dearest to negotiate his ascension to the throne; Ira David Wood IV is quite persuasive in the thankless role of the colorless Geoffrey, who silently broods in the background and only occupies the spotlight (briefly) when his smoldering resentment about always being passed over boils up to command his parents’ attention; and Thomas Porter is amusing as poor, pimply John, a clueless teenager who looks at the English crown as a bauble that should be his, without giving any thought to the demands of being the king.
Measured against Wood or Clark or the formidable supporting cast, Haley Lynch’s sweet but shallow performance as Alais — the only pawn on a chess table full of two kings and a queen and three knights — is lacking that essential something that would explain why Henry is so infernally attached to her. Her beauty and pleasant personality are simply not enough. To snare Henry’s heart, Alais must, in some way, have a bit of the vixen in her — something that Lynch does not demonstrate here.
TIP resident technical director Stephen J. Larson has conceived and built a superbly detailed recreation of part of Richard’s cold, damp, dark castle at Chinon. It is, perhaps, his best set to date. Larson also employs atmospheric lighting to heighten the show’s dramatic intensity and the dark deeds and even darker thoughts that the walls of Chinon castle witnessed in 1183.
Guest costume designer John C. McIlwee has dressed the cast in an impressive array of 12th century fashions, which also add an air of authenticity to the proceedings. McIlwee’s eye-catching costumes are some of his finest creations to date.
David Wood, who doubles as the show’s director, has not only cast The Lion in Winter well, but has elicited sharply etched characterizations from co-star Lynda Clark and a distinguished supporting cast. This powerful production, which received a standing ovation after Friday night’s performance, expertly explores the causes and current manifestations of dysfunction in the sublimely dysfunctional Plantagenet family. TIP’s provocative production of this classic historical drama is not only a showcase for two of the Triangle’s finest actors, but it is one of the highlights of the 2005 theater season.
Theatre in the Park presents The Lion in Winter Thursday-Saturday, May 12-14, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, May 15, at 3 p.m. on the mainstage at the Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina. $18 ($12 students and seniors). 919/831-6058. Note 1: The May 12th performance will be audio described. Note 2: There will be a $10-per-person preshow event, King Henry’s Wine and Cheese Social, from 1 to 2:15 p.m. May 15th. Theatre in the Park: http://www.theatreinthepark.com/2004-05_productions/lion_in_winter/lion_in_winter.htm [inactive 9/05]. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=5424. Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0063227/.
Ira David Wood III and Lynda Clark, two titans of the Triangle theater community, will star in Theatre in the Park’s May 5-15 production of The Lion in Winter in the Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre in Raleigh, NC. They will play the Battling Bickersons of the 12th century: English King Henry II Plantagenet (1133-1189) and his bitterly estranged wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204).
Henry is, perhaps, most well known on this side of the Big Pond for inadvertently ordering the murder of his friend Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas à Becket, who was cut down in his own cathedral on Dec. 29, 1170. (The events of The Lion in Winter take place 13 years later, at Christmas time, in Henry’s castle at Chinon, France.)
“Years ago,” recalls TIP executive and artistic director David Wood, “we did a production of Becket [by Jean Anouilh] at TIP. I played Henry II in that production, fell in love with the character, and have wanted to do The Lion in Winter ever since. I’ve finally reached the right age to do it properly, so we felt the time was right to include it in this year’s season.”
Wood adds, “There’s simply not enough space in this preview article to do James Goldman] justice. He has written an absolutely fabulous script. I mean, how often do actors get such an abundance of brilliant lines to say? It’s like sitting down to a seven-course meal!
“There’s a special quality in Goldman’s writing that’s very modern as well as period,” Wood explains. “Incredible wit one moment, and then something absolutely heartbreaking the next. It’s also rare that a playwright is able to take such a potentially dark subject — domestic turmoil and a dysfunctional family — and raise it all to such an entertaining art form.
“Oddly enough,” Wood says, “the play originally opened to highly contradictory notices, including an unbelievable dismissal in The New York Times. It closed after eighty-three performances. Then came the film — which everybody and their cousins have seen — and it thankfully reprieved the play, transforming it into a theater work that’s still performed all over the world.”
The Lion in Winter made its Broadway debut on March 3, 1966 at the Ambassador Theatre. It starred Robert Preston as Henry and Rosemary Harris as Eleanor. (Harris won the 1966 Tony Award® for Best Actress in a Play, and director Noel Willman was nominated for the Tony for Best Direction of a Play.)
The 1968 British motion-picture version of the play, directed by Anthony Harvey, starred Peter O’Toole as Henry and Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor. It received seven Academy Award nominations in 1969, including a Best Picture nomination. Both O’Toole and Hepburn were nominated, but only Hepburn took home an Oscar (her third).
When the curtain rises in the stage play, says David Wood, “The year is 1183. King Henry II (Ira David Wood III) is celebrating Christmas in his palace at Chinon, France — along with his mistress, Alais Capet (Haley Lynch). Henry is 50 years old and needs to make a decision as to which of his three sons — Richard (James Miller), Geoffrey (Ira David Wood IV), and John (Thomas Porter) — will rule the kingdom after he dies. Henry’s wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Lynda Clark) — who has been imprisoned for 10 years because of her penchant for leading civil wars against her husband — has been allowed to join Henry, his three sons, and his mistress for the holidays. She wants Richard to inherit the crown. Henry wants John to have it. Geoffrey wants to be on the winning side — no matter who or what that turns out to be.”
Wood adds, “As if this combined assembly isn’t volatile enough, the King of France, Philip (Zachary Armfield), has been added to the mix. Philip happens to be Alais’ brother, and wants her married to Richard in order to cement a political alliance.
“Once everyone has gathered for what should obviously be a joyous occasion,” Wood explains, “sparks immediately begin to ignite. It’s as though everyone is standing in a room together ... up to their knees in gasoline. If only one person lights a match, they’re all going to go up in the resulting explosion. The risk factor is increased because of the fact that the characters are motivated as much by spite as by any sense of duty. Yet, somehow through it all, they manage to put the ‘fun’ in ‘dysfunctional.’”
Wood notes, “The motion picture has left a rather indelible impression, so the challenge is to try as best you can to somehow crack that mold. I believe we’ve assembled the perfect cast to do it. I’m delighted to be onstage with Lynda Clark once again. She’s quite wonderful in the role of Eleanor, and we play extremely well off one another. We haven’t worked together in some time, so The Lion in Winter has turned out to be a terrific homecoming.
“It’s also a pleasure and honor,” Wood declares, “to be able to share the stage with my 20-year-old son, Ira IV. He’s been working in Hollywood for the past several years, and I’ve missed him. I’ve been quite impressed with the work he’s done and the maturity he’s bringing to the role of Geoffrey. The rest of the cast is equally impressive, and it’s been such a joy to work with each of them.
“Directing and playing a leading role has its challenges,” claims David Wood. “Thankfully, I’ve been able to rely on the eyes, ears, and sensibility of my fellow cast members and stagemanager Mike Raab for guidance and suggestions. It’s been a very communal rehearsal process which, I believe, can only enrich what we do together.
“Additionally,” Wood says, “we have to transport the audience from a warm Raleigh day in May to a cold and bleak Christmas season in France during 1183. This, we accomplish with layered sound and subtle lighting effects. John McIlwee’s magnificent costumes have also provided just the right finishing touch. The many pieces of a complex puzzle are falling into place as we draw nearer to opening night. The excitement is becoming palpable — and that’s always a good sign.”
In addition to director David Wood, the show’s production team includes TIP resident set and lighting designer Stephen J. Larson and guest costume designer John C. McIlwee, director of University Theatre at N.C. State.
Wood says, “Steve Larson has done another magnificent job in creating the perfect set for this play. He goes into the theater, closes the door ... and three weeks later he’s created an entire royal chamber that looks as though it was picked up and moved here from France!
“Steve actually copied the hues and textures of the stones used to build the castle at Chinon,” Wood explains. “The Grove Park Inn would be jealous of the incredible fireplace he’s constructed. (It is the Christmas season in Goldman’s script after all.) Additionally, the entire set is higher off the floor than any other set I can remember. The added height will be a delightful surprise for the audience — as well as providing the actors a sort of elevation that brings a wonderful sense of ‘amplification’ to these sometimes larger-than-life historical characters.”
Wood adds, “We’re working with a lighting design that will also create beautifully dramatic shadows in this production. Pools of light — from the fireplace, candles and torches — give the production just the right ‘mood,’ as well as adding a great deal to the emotional impact of the various scenes.”
As for the show’s costumes, Wood quips, “John McIlwee has created them; what else needs to be said? The man doesn’t simply put clothes on people, he adorns bodies, amplifies characters, and creates such wonderful subliminal things with color schemes and fabric textures. When you work with John, you are truly working with a master. He’s also one of the dearest and wittiest friends anyone could possibly hope for. To work with him again has been an absolute delight.”
David Wood says, “I’ll reach retirement age in less than 10 years, so I’ve begun to pick and choose the roles that I’d truly like to do before I begin to hang things up as an actor. I find that I am in the right place at the right time to do this particular play — and that’s been a terrific asset to my own level of enthusiasm for the entire project. An incredible cast, staff, and crew has been assembled. I’m working with people I love and admire. Who could possibly ask for more?
“Finally,” Wood concludes, “for all its darkness and sometimes combustible scenes, the play is a rare and delicious comedy. I truly believe our production is going to do it justice, and our audiences are going to find themselves royally entertained.”
Theatre in the Park presents The Lion in Winter Thursday-Saturday, May 5-7 and 12-14, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, May 8 and 15, at 3 p.m. on the mainstage at the Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina. $18 ($12 students and seniors). 919/831-6058. Note 1: There will be a reception, which includes heavy hors d’oeuvres from The Angus Barn and dessert from Edible Art, following the May 6th performance. Note 2: The May 12th performance will be audio described. Note 3: There will be a $10-per-person preshow event, King Henry’s Wine and Cheese Social, from 1 to 2:15 p.m. May 15th. Theatre in the Park: http://www.theatreinthepark.com/2004-05_productions/lion_in_winter/lion_in_winter.htm [inactive 9/05]. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=5424. Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0063227/.