BWW Review: A LION IN WINTER - Wimberley Disappoints With Passionless Plantagenets

James Goldman's bitingly witty play A LION IN WINTER has been a favorite of mine most of my life. Written in 1966, this show has everything in my opinion; warring family, a larger than life king, a queen who is, arguably, the most famous woman in history, grasping, greedy princes, all wrapped up in a real life, high stakes game of thrones. The biggest plus is some of the best dialogue ever written for the stage, and roles that are on every actor's bucket list. As a devotee of medieval history, A LION IN WINTER, is quite simply my cup of tea. The legendary Plantagenet family known as the 'Devil's Brood' on stage at the same time? It doesn't get better. Unfortunately The Wimberley Players production is sadly lacking in the passion that runs through the veins of Goldman's work like life's blood.

The play is fictitiously set at Christmas time 1183, in Chinon, Loire Valley (in modern day France), where Henry II (Danny Mosier) of England, his estranged/imprisoned queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (Mary Jane Windle), their three remaining sons, Richard (Blake Latz), Geoffrey (Lucas McCutchen) and John (Justin Duggan) gather for what passes as the family holiday. In addition to the Plantagenets there is Philip II (James Lindsley), the young king of France with his sister Alais (Elizabeth Raine), who has been King Henry's ward since she was 8 (in hopes she would marry one of Henry's sons). This gathering never actually happened, but it's deliciously fun to think of all these historical giants in one place at the same time. Henry II and Eleanor's eldest son and heir Henry the Young King died (due to a fever) just six months prior to the action in the play, the kingdom was in turmoil due to the feuding of the remaining brothers. The boys break into open rebellion several times until Henry's death in 1189, Geoffrey was to die just three years before his father. The Angevin Empire stretched from Hadrian's Wall through most of what we now know as France. The family had legendary temperaments to match the breadth of their lands; it was said that Henry's grandmother was known as the Demon Countess of Anjou. I realize this background may seem trivial and off topic but I want to highlight the point that these are large, powerful, very real characters with huge shoes to fill.

The Wimberley Playhouse is an outstanding venue in a beautiful hill country setting, it's a known gem of the Austin area. I've heard such wonderful things about their productions that I was excited to see them produce one of my favorite plays so I happily took a drive of over 50 miles to attend. I confess myself disappointed in the show. The set, designed by Nina Bryant is beautiful, with clever moving arches that set each scene in medieval splendor, the scenic painting is flawless, if you can forgive the rather large numbers drawn on the bottom of each of the four arch pieces and the crunching plastic greenery (it was stepped on by actors multiple times). Costumes designed by Cecelia Gay are a mishmash of 'Medieval R Us'. The male costumes look like they have all been made from a single pattern, with the exception of Richard who looked to be wearing shiny 'Under Armor' shirts. Eleanor's dress made me physically cringe, it looked as if it had been purchased at a Halloween store, and cheap one at that. The fabrics, in general, lacked texture and embellishments that were common in the era and would have added depth and luxury. The cast is uniformly lackluster and passionless. As attractive as Ms Windle is, she appears to be twenty years too young in appearance to play the 61 year old Eleanor (who was eleven years older than Henry and lived into her 80's). Scenes where they gamble for empires ring hollow as if they were arguing over what breakfast cereal to buy. The only actor who has an occasional spark of verve is Lucas McCutchen as Geoffrey. He is best when he is manipulating his youngest brother John, played by Justin Duggan, but these scenes are too few to liven the production. Far too many times actors stood awkwardly, disengaged from the action around them. Scene changes are smooth and interesting with the cast shifting arches and strangely non period furniture; if it weren't for the appearance of a single stagehand they would have been more appealing. Why jar the audience back to present day by sending on a single tech wearing blacks and a headset? A puzzling choice from director Milton Zoth, among so many other odd decisions. His actors rarely match the passion of their dialogue and are often blocked across the stage from each other in moments that should be in close quarters. Ultimately the flaws in the production come down to Zoth's direction. Perhaps a quarter of the audience left at intermission of the performance I attended, so I am certain others were as underwhelmed as I was.

My recommendation is to give a pass on A LION IN WINTER with the Wimberley Players. Perhaps the next show will be more focused and appealing.

A LION IN WINTER

by James Goldman

The Wimberley Playhouse, Wimberley, TX

November 9th - December 2nd, Friday/Saturday @ 7:30, Sunday @ 2:30

Running Time: 2.5 hours with one 15 minute intermission

Tickets: $18 - $22 wimberleyplayers.org

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From This Author Lynn Beaver

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