Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Lion in Winter
Guthrie Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Kit's review of Cinderella and Arty's reviews of Orphan Train and Crazy Glue

Laila Robins, Kevyn Morrow, Thallis Santesteban,
Torsten Johnson, and Riley O'Toole

Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp
The Lion in Winter, James Goldman's play now receiving a pulsating production at the Guthrie, takes place over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but this is no A Christmas Carol. The year is 1183, the setting is a French castle controlled by the English King Henry II. Henry, his three living sons, and his mistress Alais (who is betrothed to eldest of the sons, Richard) are joined by his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who is on a brief holiday release from the house arrest which has confined her for the past ten years. Ostensibly, they are gathered to celebrate the birth of their lord, but there is scant Christian love or devotion on their minds or in their hearts.

What is on their minds is the future of Henry's empire, which includes most of Great Britain as well as large areas of France, territories acquired by wars, negotiations and marriage. At fifty years of age, Henry has lived longer than most men of his era. Though he is still robust, his sons have long been sniping over who will inherit which property and who will be named Henry's successor as King. Henry has no intent of leaving it up to them. As he asks while he and Eleanor pass around the Christmas greenery, "Well what shall we hang, the holly or each other?"

Henry leans toward his youngest son, John, perhaps because John's immaturity and slow mind allow Henry to totally manipulate him. Henry would also have Alais' betrothal to Richard transferred to John, for John would not challenge his father's continuing affair with the young French girl. Eleanor makes no secret of her support for Richard, whose military prowess and iron will have been well demonstrated. Middle son Geoffrey, fuming over being overlooked by both father and mother, is aligned with Richard, whom he expects to come out the winner in the power struggle. Along with his wife and sons, Henry contends with Phillip II, the young French king and Alais' half-brother, who has come to demand that the English court act on her betrothal or release her. He may also have an interest in forming an alliance with one of the sons against the English king.

Henry and Eleanor are like warring chess masters, rearranging the playing pieces into ever-changing alliances over the play's two acts. Eleanor's political betrayal, and the cause of her confinement, began with her support of a revolt against the king led by their son Young Henry, who since has died of illness, and Richard. For her part, Eleanor claims her betrayal was flamed by Henry's falling away from her and into torrid affairs with other women. She swears that she still loves Henry, though whether this is her truth or a strategy to hold sway over him is hard to tell.

Director Kevin Moriarty gives this production the pace of a ticking stopwatch. He reveals the play as a mask for contemporary values and tribulations over the intersection of family, power, love, lust, greed and honor. Swap a family-held multi-national for Henry's kingdom and the schemes of ascendance, betrayals, and secret liaisons could be the plot of a soap opera or an item in the New York Post. This staging suggests that history is shaped not by virtue triumphing over evil, or deeply held philosophies of moral and civic order, but by the personal ambitions, wounded egos, and whims of all-too-human men and women. Not so different from some of our current breaking news. A Twitter feed would be handy to keep up with the shifting sand of Henry's kingdom.

Laila Robins draws on Eleanor's wit and fierce determination to defy her imprisonment and continue to wield power. Her scorching critiques of Henry and her sons pop effortlessly from her mouth, as bubbles from champagne. She is delightfully ribald, as when putting on her necklace, saying to it, "I'd hang you from the nipples, but you'd shock the children," yet carries an ever-present regal bearing. Eleanor is generally the showier role: it won a Tony for Rosemary Harris in the 1966 original production, and an Oscar for Katherine Hepburn in the 1968 film. Yet, Kevyn Morrow's Henry is every bit as vibrant and fierce a character. Morrow makes visible the machinations of deceit within Henry's mind, his need for affirmations to stave off any thoughts of aging, and his love of power, in particular the blood sport of king-making. Robins' and Morrow's scenes together create great sparks which attest to their enmity as well as to the love they once knew.

Torsten Johnson makes a stolid, steely Richard, totally ready to take up arms against his father. Michael Hanna as Geoffrey is a master manipulator who has no scruples about changing sides in order to come out a winner. As John, Riley O'Toole may be a hair too whiny, too gratingly juvenile. Being a slow witted, untested youth makes him an illogical choice to be Henry's successor; no need to further tarnish his credentials by making him unbearable. Thallis Santesteban is marvelous as Alias Capet, the princess who, in captivity, has become Henry's lover, but who has found ways to assert power of her own. As Phillip II, David Pegram holds his own against this cunning and cutthroat family, rebuking Henry's repeatedly taunts as he stands up for his dignity and his country's sovereignty.

The production's design is, in every aspect, breathtaking. Beowulf Boritt (a Tony award winner) and Christopher Ash are both credited with design of the magnificent set, a rotating tower constructed of heavy wood beams, with platforms at different levels that become Henry, Eleanor, Alais, and Phillip's chambers, with a ring of over 250 white candles burning around the circumference on the top tier. A prison cell used by Henry to take charge of his rebellious sons rises, dungeon-like, from below.

The costumes designed by Karen Perry are tastefully opulent; in one scene, Henry enters from the outdoors in a fur coat that gives him the look of a mythic beast. Henry's crowns in particular, but also Queen Eleanor's and King Phillip's, convey both dignity and raw power. Clifton Taylor's lighting design creates starkly intimate spaces within the mammoth tower, while Amadon Jaeger provides a soundtrack of royal trumpets and howling wind, pitting the power of man against the force of nature.

While Goldman invented the conceit of this particular Christmas gathering, the dialogue is his alone, and some of his themes not confirmed by historical record—for example, the suggestion that Richard was a homosexual remains unresolved by historians. Still, the record bears out that the sons fought mightily against their father and one another, that Eleanor held onto power, regaining the role of Regent after Henry's death, and that Phillip II of France waged war against the English. Indeed, the actual history is packed with many more complications than even as dense a play as The Lion in Winter can hold. What the play, and this terrific production, do offer is a smashingly dramatic tale of family dysfunction that, in this case, happens to change the course of history. After all, as Eleanor blithely puts it, "All families have their ups and downs."

The Lion in Winter continues through December 3, 2016, at the Guthrie's McGuire Proscenium Stage, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN, 55115. Tickets: $34.00 - $67.00. Student and 30 & below discounts available. Rush seats may be available 30 minutes before performance, from $15.00 - $30.00, cash or check only. For ticket information call 612-377-2224 or go to

Writer: James Goldman; Director: Kevin Moriarty; Scenic Design: Beowulf Boritt and Christopher Ash; Costume Design: Karen Perry; Lighting Design: Clifton Taylor; Sound Design: Amadon Jaeger; Vocal Coach: Jill Walmsley Zager; Dramaturg: Carla Steen; Casting Consultant: McCorkle Casting, Ltd.; Stage Manager: Chris A. Code; Assistant Stage Manager: Katherine Kenfield; Assistant Director: Andrew P. Watkins.

Cast: Michael Hanna (Geoffrey), Torsten Johnson (Richard Lionheart), Kevyn Morrow (Henry II), Riley O'Toole (John), David Pegram (Phillip II), Laila Robins (Eleanor of Aquitaine), Thallis Santesteban (Alais Capet).

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