Even if you think that your family is hard to deal with over the holidays, you probably didn’t have to reunite with an evil mom who was locked in a tower by a maybe even more evil dad. (If that is your situation, I am deeply sorry.) This is just one of the conflicts bubbling in James Goldman’s historical drama “The Lion in Winter,” now being performed in a lively production at Pioneer Theatre Company. The other conflicts include deciding an heir to the throne of England, the ever-shifting fortunes of King Henry II’s young mistress and the twisting power plays of Philip, the rival King of France. Set during one consequential Christmas, Henry II (Esau Pritchett) lives with his three sons, Richard (William Connell), Geoffrey (Damian Jermaine Thompson) and John (Austin Reed Alleman). Also living near them is Henry’s wife Eleanor (Celeste Ciulla) who has been imprisoned in a separate castle for ten years. Everyone responds to Eleanor’s return to Henry’s castle with a degree of wariness, and no one is quite able to determine her motivations as Henry tries to determine an heir to his throne and navigates his relationship with Alais (Maryam Ambdi), his young lover.
Though “The Lion in Winter” is set in 1183, this play feels fresh and relevant even as the characters live in a world that is not in many ways removed from our own. However, this production doesn’t achieve this significance by winking at future developments — the characters are fully engrossed in their own psychodramas and political scheming. Likewise, Goldman makes little direct political statements, and wisely neither does the shrewd director Wes Grantom. However, the selfishness, cruelty and privilege of these characters bear an uncomfortable resemblance to our modern world — it is not a stretch to imagine a similar play written in 800 years replacing Richard and John with Don Jr. and Eric.
Part of the success of “The Lion in Winter” comes from its unexpected subject matter. Questions of history and politics play into the narrative, but Goldman is just as interested in the characters’ interpersonal relations as their endless wars. Some of the most compelling scenes, which depict the thorny, destructive marriage of Henry and Eleanor, recall “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” more than Shakespeare’s history plays. The play’s dialogue is entirely fictional, though the characters and situations are based in reality. This frees Goldman to imagine compelling scenarios beyond the restrictions of literal reconstruction. If these monarchs from 1183 are not exactly “relatable,” their volatile menagerie of sex, power and deception is certainly compelling, even to non-history buffs.
This production’s creative team does consistently fine work. The scenic design by Jason Simms and costume design by Phillip R. Lowe, are sumptuously handsome, and Grantom’s staging is fluid and engaging. The play’s traditional design contrasts nicely with the real star of the show — Goldman’s surprisingly playful and irreverent script. In the first act especially, “The Lion in Winter” is a deliciously dark comedy, with the insults, hubris and bruising one-liners of a twelfth century “Veep.”
Goldman’s witty dialogue is brought to life by an excellent cast of actors in the best ensemble PTC has boasted in recent memory. As Henry, Pritchett nails both the monarch’s capacity for intimidation and his serrated charm. Alleman earns the biggest laughs as the dopey John, Grayson DeJesus is formidable and quietly sexy as Philip, King of France and as Geoffrey, Thompson is gripping even in a role defined by stasis and quiet cunning. Ciulla is a particular highlight as Eleanor. If much of the play’s fun comes from parsing out characters’ shifting motivations and machinations, and Eleanor’s combination of jealousy, heartbreak and self-preservation is the most complex of any character. The script compares Eleanor to Medea, but Ciulla’s exciting performance portrays her as more than a vengeance-seeking villainess. Her Eleanor is both tragic and sharply funny, as Ciulla both provides emotional weight and avoids any tendency toward self-seriousness.
If you really want to nitpick, there are a few peccadilloes in “The Lion in Winter.” The pacing can drag, especially in the less outwardly comedic second act. One in five punch lines might be a touch too manicured to make an impact. Though Abdi makes a valiant effort, the character of Alais is the blandest in the show by a wide margin, which is a shame, because she could have been a more formidable foil to Eleanor, or even Henry’s over privileged and under qualified sons. These flaws quickly melt away in the face of all “The Lion in Winter” does right. As A.O. Scott said about an even more wild interpretation of English history, “The moral is that power corrupts, and corruption is fun.”
“The Lion in Winter” will play at PTC until Jan. 19. Performances are at 7 p.m. on Mondays through Thursdays and 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, with additional matinees at 2 p.m. on Saturdays. For more information including ticket prices, visit pioneertheatre.org.
Update as of 1/17/19: Pioneer Theatre is offering free tickets to Federal Employees affected by the shutdown. Two free tickets with a valid federal ID or pay stub.