REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
Two very different works by playwright James Goldman are currently being featured in Ventura County during November – and they couldn’t be more different from one another. In 1971, Goldman wrote the book for Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, the emotionally-charged musical roller coaster that became a sensation on Broadway. Follies is currently readying for its debut on November 13 by the Conejo Players Theatre. The other is Goldman’s work of historical fiction, The Lion in Winter, a powerful drama about love, honor, and treachery based on real characters and situations occurring in the Middle Ages – the play is currently being presented at the Elite Theatre Company.
Just like in baseball, to hit a home run in the theater, you have to touch four bases. You can’t get to first base without having a superior product. Second base is the reward for having an astute director. You get to third base by being blessed with an exemplary cast. Finally, a home run results when all things come together and the play is executed exactly as perceived by the producer and director. Not only does the Elite Theatre Company hit a home run with this exquisite production, it’s a grand slam.
Baseball analogies aside, director Tom Eubanks, who also co-produced the show with Lea Baskas-Roman, has done a near-perfect job in presenting this difficult show. In addition to dealing with the ghosts of Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris, who starred in the 1966 play, and Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn, who played the lead roles in the acclaimed 1968 motion picture version, the script is exhausting for actors because of the high level of emotion that pervades throughout.
The story takes place in 1183, when King Henry II of England is ready to bequeath his throne to one of his three sons. At the outset of the play, Henry has released his wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, from prison, where Henry had incarcerated her for the past ten years. If that reunion isn’t uncomfortable enough, the King and Queen now have to deal with their offspring and decide which one is going to become king after Henry’s death. This results in a battle whose treachery is unsurpassed in any play this side of Shakespeare. My Three Sons this isn’t. Henry, who is no Fred MacMurray, wishes to keep his kingdom intact, and has to select one of these three miscreants, which isn’t an easy decision.
At the outset, Henry’s choice is his youngest son, John, a 16-year-old brat who is too immature to take care of himself, much less an entire kingdom. Eleanor favors eldest surviving son Richard, who at least has had some experience in the field as a soldier, however, even he has some ghosts lurking in his closet that come to the fore during the course of the play. The middle son, Geoffrey, is cold and conniving, with what Shakespeare would have described as a “lean and hungry look,” ambitious as well as deadly.
James Goldman himself couldn’t have imagined a better cast for the show than the actors assembled for this production. Making his Elite debut is Alan Waserman, a classical actor and director who got the plum role of playing King Henry. Alternately explosive and tender-hearted, Waserman runs the gamut of emotions in the play, commanding attention whenever he is on the set. Vivien Latham is Waserman’s equal as Queen Eleanor, a human thermometer of emotions; at one moment icy cold, haughty, and magisterial, and then, at a moment’s turn, wistful, warm, and romantic. When Waserman and Latham are on stage alone, the effect is enthralling as they do verbal battle with one another.
As Richard the Lionheart, Adam Womack is ahead of the game at the outset because of an uncanny resemblance to a young Orson Welles. Bold and confident, Womack’s Richard has several Achilles’ heels, and his terrific in showing the vulnerabilities and uncertainness of his character. A musical theater veteran by trade, Womack is an exceptional actor; although his background has tended toward more lightweight shows such as High School Musical and Bye, Bye Birdie, he definitely has a future in serious drama.
Eric McGowan is frightening as Geoffrey, cold and calculating, with a mind that is all wheels and gears that spin as he concocts his devilish plan of attack, often three and four steps ahead of his brothers. With his Prince Valiant hairstyle, McGowan would also make a terrific Mordred in Camelot. You don’t want to turn your back on this back-stabber.
Trent Trachtenberg plays the youngest son, John, Henry’s chosen heir, and God knows why he is favored by his father in this scenario. With his unkempt Arlo Guthrie hair, Tracthenberg is perfect as the simpering, whimpering child, immature, petulant, sulking, and prone to tantrums. He is your worst nightmare of a nasty younger brother.
Morgan Bozarth plays the key role of Alais, who was betrothed to Richard when she was eight, but is now hopelessly in love with his father. Portrayed as an innocent, Alais develops a mean streak of her own when she urges Henry to pull an Edgar Allen Poe by locking up his sons forever in the castle dungeon. Bozarth is convincing as the deceptively innocent young girl who has fallen in love with the much older King.
Alex Czajka plays Alais’ brother, Philip II, the boy king of France, who, although he assumed the throne at 15 and has had three years on the job, is still no match for Henry’s negotiating skills. Although utilizing the appropriate accents is not really required for this play, Czajka does a good job, but tends to overdo his French accent, which often sounds forced and unnatural.
The play builds up to the final scene in the castle dungeon, a deadly showdown that will have you completely wrung out in a frenzy over who, if anyone, will endure in this monstrously dysfunctional family. George P. Miller provides between-scene musical interludes with delicate melodies played on a celtic harp. The Lion in Winter is high drama, highly recommended.
The Lion in Winter plays through November 22 at the Elite Theatre Company in Oxnard. For tickets, visit www.elitetheatre.org