Superb cast sparks witty royal intrigue in Pioneer Theatre’s “Lion in Winter”

Thu Jan 10, 2019 at 11:12 am
By Edward Reichel

James Goldman’s “The Lion in Winter” runs at the Pioneer Theatre through January 19. Photo: BW Productions

Anyone who’s never seen or read The Lion in Winter might think it’s a typical historical drama a la Shakespeare. But they’d be mistaken. 

True, it deals with Henry II of England and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine and tackles questions of royal succession at some length. But that’s where any similarity to historical plays ends.

While the characters are real, playwright James Goldman has written a wonderfully ingenious and captivating story filled with sophisticated dialogue and wicked humor that imagines what might have happened between Henry, Eleanor and their three sons during the Christmas of 1183.

The Lion in Winter is currently playing at Pioneer Theatre and this is a must-see production.

As one has come to expect from Pioneer, the company does a remarkable job in casting its productions and The Lion in Winter is no exception. Tuesday evening all of the actors gave a commanding performance in bringing their characters to life.

Topping the list are Esau Pritchett as Henry and Celeste Ciulla as Eleanor. They are imposing figures onstage as they engage in a battle of wits over which son will inherit the throne of England after Henry’s death.

Pritchett gives credence to his role as he blusters, bellows and demands obedience to his will. Henry is a huge figure and Pritchett fills it well.

Eleanor, on the other hand, works quietly behind the scenes to get her way regarding succession. And Ciulla’s portrayal is the perfect foil to Pritchett’s Henry. She’s a schemer who isn’t easily bested, which Ciulla conveys marvelously. She doesn’t flinch at Henry’s barbs, and the two of them get into some serious verbal matches, trading insults and wishing the other dead. It’s powerful drama that the two actors pull it off brilliantly.

Equally crafty is Alais, the sister of King Philip of France. She’s ostensibly a pawn and promised in marriage to one of Henry’s sons to cement the political relationship between England and France. But she has other plans. Henry wants her as his mistress and she coyly plays with him in an attempt to gain greater power at his court. Maryam Abdi gives a powerful performance as Alais. She captures the girl’s cunning character with subtle inflections and nuanced mannerisms.

The actors playing the three sons are all exceptional in the way they underscore each character’s distinctive personalities.

Richard the Lionheart, played by William Connell, is arrogant and has many of his father’s traits. He wants the throne badly enough to do anything to get it. As played by Austin Reed Alleman, John is sniveling and pathetic and he doesn’t know what he wants; he just does what he’s told.

Geoffrey, played by Damian Jermaine Thompson, being the middle son, feels left out and ignored, and seems to be satisfied with being John’s chancellor if John succeeds Henry.

Connell, Alleman and Thompson all bring depth and finely honed expressions to their portrayals. The constant bickering and fighting that goes on among the three is fascinating to watch.

Grayson DeJesus as Philip does a fine job in his interactions with the others. Philip is soft spoken and doesn’t get involved in shouting matches with anyone, but he does have an agenda and wants the best for Alais.

The sets and costumes, by Jason Simms and Phillip R. Lowe, respectively, capture the period simply but effectively. And Wes Grantom’s direction is spot on—finely paced and allowing the actors to bring out their best.

The Lion in Winter runs through January 19 at Pioneer Theatre.; 801-581-6961.

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