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Zemfira Stage The Lion in Winter

By • Jan 19th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
The Lion in Winter
Zemfira Stage
James Lee Community Center Theater, Falls Church, VA
Through January 27th
2:30 with one intermission
$15/$10 Students, Seniors, Military, Sunday Matinees
Reviewed January 18th, 2013

James Goldman’s 1966 historical drama, The Lion in Winter, depicts a dynastic standoff between King Henry II of England and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, a case, if ever there was, of bedfellows making strange politics. Goldman’s script, which had a successful run on Broadway and an even more successful film version (with Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn), reduces the byzantine royal power struggles of late 12th century England and France to a matter of dysfunctional family dynamics.

To succeed, this wordy and sporadically witty script requires strong and consistent pacing, crackling chemistry between the leads, and fully believable performances from the five supporting players. These are precisely the qualities that Zemfira Stage’s current production lacks. What results is an evening of slow, tedious line readings, punctuated by occasional outbursts of loud, vigorous scenery chewing.

The pacing sags throughout. Lines are often delivered one-word-at-a-time, or even one-syl-la-ble-at-a-time, precluding a smooth flow of language. There are frequent slow cue pickups by one actor after another has completed speaking. The pace isn’t helped by scene changes that seem much slower than the relatively modest movements of set dressing pieces involved should call for. The set changes are typically accompanied by repetitive music and instrumentation that belong some centuries in the future from 1183.

In the past, Jim Mitchell has played roles like Max Bialystock, Pseudolus, and Tevye; his physicality appears to suit those roles well. However, as King Henry, his bearing is a good deal less regal than one might hope for. Playing his character as one governed by emotions of the moment, he makes one wonder how Henry became a politically successful monarch. Perhaps thinking that this is what lions do, his way of expressing strong feeling is to bellow.

As Eleanor, Michelle Ballard appears at times to try to channel some of Hepburn’s take on the role, particularly the tight, talking through her teeth smile she employs when she is scheming to manipulate others to achieve her political objectives. Like some other great political figures (Franklin Roosevelt comes to mind), Ballard’s Eleanor is someone who, when faced with a choice of accomplishing something by straightforward or devious means, instinctively chooses the latter.

Much of the impact of the play derives from the tension created by Eleanor and Henry being simultaneously quite vicious political opponents and a couple who, despite their estrangement, have a deeply powerful and lasting emotional bond. As scene partners, Ballard and Mitchell are reasonably effective plotting against one another, but they do not have the chemistry to convey their attachment. The words are there, but the feeling doesn’t develop.

Among the supporting cast, Shaina Higgins is an attractive Alais (Henry’s current mistress), who plays her character as being chronically depressed, albeit with occasional sparks of insight. One wishes Prozac existed in the 12th century. In contrast, John, the king’s youngest son (Will McLeod) is exceedingly hyper. While the script does paint John as an immature and insecure young man, the runt of this royal litter, McLeod goes over the top in creating a temper tantrum prone, whiny prince whose emotional age is around 10. As King Phillip of France, Brett Steven Abelman is particularly susceptible to the one-word-at-a-time virus infecting the cast, but he does show Phillip beginning to mature as a political player.

As the middle son Geoffrey, Andrew Tippie avoids, with the exception of a come-to-mommy scene with Eleanor, the temptation to overact, portraying a cool (to the point of blandness), cerebral, amoral operator who seeks influence by attaching himself to whoever seems to be winning the power game. The oldest son, Richard (Don Bruns), is the most capable of the three princes, a military man whose bluntness and directness place him at something of a disadvantage in the court intrigues. While, like others in the cast, Bruns succumbs to the temptation to overact in some scenes, he gives Richard greater intelligence than some portrayals of the character.

The set is a loose semicircle of flats to which a number of gray slabs, not touching each other, are attached. This does not succeed in creating the look or feel of a medieval stone castle. Occasionally, set dressings are laid on the flats, most humorously in a scene where the three princes hide behind tapestries, Polonius-like, to overhear conspiratorial conversations involving Eleanor and Henry.

The play ran two and a half hours. It seemed longer.

The Cast

  • Henry II, King of England: Jim Mitchell
  • Alais Capet, a French Princess: Shaina Higgins
  • John, the youngest son: Will MacLeod
  • Geoffrey, the middle son: Andrew Tippie
  • Richard, the Lionheart: Don Bruns
  • Elanor, Henry’s wife: Michelle Ballard
  • Philip, King of France: Brett Steven Abelman

The Production Team

  • Producer/Director: Zina T. Bleck
  • Assistant Director/Stage Manager: Miguel Lopez
  • Stage Manager/Running Crew Chief: Rich Prien
  • Lighting Design: Stacy King
  • Sound Design: Herb Tax
  • Scenic Artist: Alexa Wilson

Disclaimer: Zemfira Stage provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.

One Response »

  1. I disagree completely. I attended Lion in Winter on Saturday night and it was delightful! This is the type of play too few attempt, and so we almost never have the chance to see it on stage. It was wonderful to see Eleanor of Aquitaine portrayed on stage, and Michelle Ballard did a stunning job of playing the role not as legend, but as a person — with great qualities and tragic flaws.

    Henry II was a delight. Jim Mitchell has a stunning range. I have seen him in comedic roles, but this was different, a dramatic role, but one calling on powerful comic moments. He played the role with depth, with understanding and with a sense of historic importance of the man, and his deep individual flaws.

    The rest of the cast presented us with a royal family that seemed very real. Sibling rivalry is an ancient art, and the princes certainly brought it to life, and brought a medieval feud into modern times.

    It was a joy to spend an evening with one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in Western Europe during the High Middle Ages and her legendary and long-standing king. I for one had a wonderful evening, and am on the Zemfira mailing list to see any and every performance coming up. There is one more weekend (Jan 25-27), and I highly recommend Zemfira’s Lion in Winter!