It's been 40 years since James Goldman's play premiered in New York. Goldman's acerbic, high-minded witticisms combine the elegance of the Renaissance and the cynicism of the 20th century to create a modern classic. A favorite with community and regional theatres nationwide, it takes a skilled cast and visionary director to grab an audience, which is exactly what this production offers. Director Mark Travis, taking the title literally, has created an animalistic Lion in Winter, using as his inspiration the play's lines: "We're jungle creatures, and the dark is all around us. In the corner you can see their eyes. And they can see ours." Assisted by remarkable sound and set designs, a live musician, and a choreographer, Goldman's version adds raw, violent energy to the stinging comedy. The cast, which will change for the second half of the run, is mixed, though greatly bolstered by two excellent leads: Jim Beaver and Bridget Hanley.
Beaver portrays England's 12th century ruler King Henry II, who in this blending of history and legend attempts to secure his legacy by naming his weak-willed son John (Adam Conger) to succeed him. Henry's wife, Eleanor (Hanley--whom Henry has kept imprisoned for years--wants the throne for her strong warrior son Richard (Yancey Dunham). The third and wisest son, Geoffrey (Matt Ritchey), backs John, assuming he will control John. Young King Philip of France (Jason Galloway) arrives for Christmas festivities to see that his sister Alais (Kendra Cover) is married to the successor, which Henry II doesn't want because Alais is his lover. Everyone is out for him--or herself, willing to lie or backstab to gain power.
Goldman's torrent of clever lines--when delivered with panache--still elicit laughs. With a childlike demeanor that turns instantly to rage, Beaver has created a Henry that is equally lovable and dangerous. Hanley provides a perfect foil as Eleanor. She gives an air of vulnerability to the queen that makes it plausible for her children and husband to nearly fall for her ploys. Travis has fashioned an animal motif by dressing his cast in furs and skins, having them stalking, crouching and eventually pouncing on their respective prey. Jeff G. Rack's jagged rock set design resembles a lion's lair. Musician Marta Collier, setting a tribal beat with her drum, blends with Christopher Burns' jungle sound design to complete Travis' vision successfully. This is a Lion in Winter that feels invigorated and powerful, worthy of Goldman's words.
Presented by Chestnuts Productions in association with and at Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Hollywood. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Jan. 27-Apr. 1. (323) 851-7977.