Cate Marquis, Staff Writer
Nothing warms one up on a cold winter’s night like a good political fight. No, not the current Presidential race, but “The Lion In Winter,” the excellent historical play now on stage at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis. The play is scheduled to run through January 30. Packed with great, quotable lines and quick-witted zingers, this battle of wills between the England’s King Henry II and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, over who will be the next king, is simultaneously amusing and thrilling drama. Set in the 12th century, the struggle is both a family fight and high-stakes political maneuvering, with two sharp-tongued masters of intrigue facing off, along with three ambitious sons, the newly-crowned 17-year-old French king, and his sister, betrothed to the next English king—whoever that is.
Geoffrey King plays King Henry II, who tells us it is no small accomplishment “to be king, 50, and alive, all at the same time” in 1183. Henry became king at 21, in part due to his marriage to the powerful and rich Eleanor of Aquitaine (Carol Schultz), and now has a kingdom that includes all of Britain and parts of France.
When the play begins, Henry has had his powerful Queen locked up in prison for several years, but lets her out temporarily for Christmas. In some ways, it is like any holiday gathering of a far-flung dysfunctional family, but Henry wants to settle the secession while they are all together, since the eldest and crown prince has died. Will the next king be 26-year-old Richard the Lion-Hearted (Grayson DeJesus), Eleanor’s favorite? Or will it be Henry’s favorite, 16-year-old John (Kurt Hellerich)? What of their middle son, 25-year-old Geoffrey (Wilson Bridges)? Who will marry the French princess Alais (Angela Janas), now that her brother, King Phillip (Ryan Zachary Ward), wants a wedding, or his sister returned?
Edward Stern directs this highly entertaining production of James Goldman’s play. This great theater classic was also the basis for a famous film starring Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor, placed in a family power struggle set at Christmas time and filled with great lines and backstabbing plot-twists.
This story takes place at an interesting historical moment. One does not need to know the history to enjoy this terrific production, but the Rep does provide a summary of the historical events and characters, all on informative panels in the lobby (as well as a throne where theatergoers can sit and even try on the crown themselves for a selfie).
The cast is marvelous. Schultz as the sassy, acid-tongue Eleanor is a particular standout but King is excellent as the equally strong adversary Henry, which makes their scenes together a pure delight. Playing Eleanor is a special challenge, given Hepburn’s famous film performance, and it is hard not to hear echoes of the film as the play is performed. However, director Stern made the right choice in casting Henry, making the two characters more like equals instead of letting clever Eleanor dominate. Still, this is a play about a powerful woman in a time when women were not given power, although they did sometimes wrest it from men by sheer brains and force of will.
The rest of the cast is also very good, providing the fuel for the political maneuverings. There are plenty of entertaining scenes as the siblings cope with their conniving parents, with family feelings occasionally poking through. It provides a familiar touchstone for the audience but also adds to the intrigue and what-happens-next suspense.
“The Lion In Winter” is well worth braving cold weather for a trip out to see some excellent live theater. The Rep offers student discounts and “rush” tickets—discounted tickets available a half-hour before the show.