By Tom Titus
September 3, 2015
Great plays frequently inspire great productions. And whether or not James Goldman's "The Lion in Winter" merits the adjective of "great," some pretty great things are going on in its name at the Costa Mesa Playhouse.
Goldman billed his "what if" depiction of events bubbling around King Henry II of England in 1183 as a comedy - and, indeed, there are some very funny lines in this well-crafted intellectual exercise. But heavy, life-or-death drama lies at the core of this struggle among a king, his imprisoned queen and their three power-hungry sons who covet his throne.
At Costa Mesa, director Timothy K. Thorn has mounted a magnificent production wherein all of its characters are competing from positions of strength, yet all suffer from perilous inner flaws. The heated face-off between Henry and Eleanor over the annulment of their marriage is a particularly well-staged clash between two powerful theatrical forces.
Thorn, last represented at the playhouse as a memorable George in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" has wound a tight, constricting web around the principal figures, a web they struggle vainly to shatter. Their fears, frustrations and occasional triumphs make for exhilarating theater.
Chief among these combatants is Peter Stone, brilliantly portraying King Henry as a proud ruler reluctant to share his power on any terms other than his own. A sort of precursor of Donald Trump, he foreshadows the Mel Brooks line, "It's good to be the king." Stone clings to his one true love - his much-younger mistress, Alais - with fervent defiance as he fends off challenges from his inner circle.
Matching him at least on a cerebral level is Jenny McGlinchey's Eleanor, released from captivity for the holidays but hardly a free woman. McGlinchey's full-bodied character schemes and plots from her personal vantage point - her legal union with Henry being the primary factor - and delivers a spectacularly vitriolic performance while thwarting his attempts at dissolution.
Of the three vindictive sons, the role of the middle heir, Geoffrey, usually is relegated to the background. In the Costa Mesa production, however, the dynamic skills of Matt Kirchberg bring this character front and center as a dangerously crafty plotter and schemer, an intellectual force to be reckoned with. Kirchberg tosses off Goldman's prose as if born to the genre.
The other two sons - both future kings - also fare quite well. Garrett Chandler's Richard is physically prepossessing with a heavy air of danger, though somewhat restrained in emotional moments. Myles Warner offers a bratty, juvenile John - his father's favorite although heaven knows why - who would go on to sign the Magna Carta.
As the self-described "only pawn" among kings, queens and knights, Victoria Serra excels as Alais, who loves the king not for his throne but for himself. Dan Marino draws unexpected strength from his role of the young French king hoping to close a deal for his country while blocking Henry's ambitions.
Director Thorn also has created the impressive multiple-set scenic design, seemingly expanding the theater's limited dimensions. Ryan Linhardt's lighting plot and Mike Brown's sound design further enhance the ominous atmospheric effect.
"The Lion in Winter" has been a major theatrical force over the past half-century, and productions such as this powerful version at the Costa Mesa Playhouse will help to keep its stature elevated.
TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the daily Pilot, Coastline Pilot and Huntington Beach Independent.
If You Go
What: "The Lion in Winter"
Where: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 611 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through September 20
Cost: $18 to $20
Information: (949) 650-5269 or http://www.costamesaplayhouse.com