The Lion in Winter at the Ritz Theatre Company

The Ritz Theatre Company selected an appropriate play for the second show of its 35th season. The production combined the viciousness and devious nature of COVID-19, the blood sport of the Democratic Presidential primaries and the perils associated with the Ides of March. That’s quite a trifecta for a story that took place in 1183. Dr. Elisabeth Hostetter directed James Goldman’s take on courtly manipulations and machinations: The Lion in Winter. Your correspondent attended the Saturday, March 7th performance.

While approaching the Ritz Theatre, your correspondent became nostalgic for the elaborate Holiday display that decorated the building in December. The company managed to keep the spirit of the season alive with the set. As the action in Lion in Winter occurred between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the trappings of a Medieval Holiday celebration filled the stage. The festivities during this Yuletide celebration, however, would not be merry ones, however.

Fifty-year old King Henry II (played by John Jackowski) Plantagenet realized he no longer possessed the energy of a young man: as he explained to his 23-year old mistress Alais Capet (played by Elizabeth Darrell). He needed to select a successor from among his three surviving sons to maintain his kingdom. The oldest, Richard (Michael J. Pliskin) had a strong disposition. Geoffrey (Jack Sharkey) possessed keen intelligence. John was a fatuous lad of 16 with a fondness for drink.

To add to the complications, Henry’s wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (Judy Morris) sought vengeance against her husband. Their marriage had suffered since he imprisoned her for the previous decade. Showing that he had some heart, the king allowed his estranged queen to visit the family for Christmas. Through a series of reindeer games involving each of her sons, she conspired to destroy Henry’s aspirations.

The Plantagenet family’s Holiday guest, King Phillip II (Robert Repici) compounded the intrigue. In a bit of a twist on Napoleon Bonaparte’s maxim that, “When your enemy is destroying himself, don’t do anything to distract him,” this monarch created many more diversions.

The Lion in Winter would show Machiavelli that even his ideas could get taken to extremes. Every character had his/her own personal agenda that he/she pursued without impunity. All of them showed an uncanny ability to agree with the last person with whom he/she spoke. With all these similar personalities, the performers still gave their characters their own unique personalities.

John Jackowski brought both Henry’s strengths and weaknesses to the stage. While dragging his leg as he walked, he still carried a commanding presence. Mr. Jackowski balanced the demands of appointing a successor to rule an empire with the challenges of being a father. After imprisoning his wife, he still showed Henry’s respect for her. As ruthless as Henry conducted himself, Mr. Jackowski displayed his human side. His discussion with Ms. Darrell about staring a family of their own served as the most poignant example of this quality.

Judy Morris’ stage presence reflected both the queen’s dignity and her drive for retribution against her husband. She expressed her lines with the elocution of royalty. Yet, her tone contained palpable vitriol. Ms. Morris also showed Eleanor’s frustration when her plans failed. A desire to “win” motivated her character. She even sought to enlist her husband’s mistress in her machinations. Only a love of her family tempered her determination to punish her husband.

Ms. Morris performed an outstanding scene with Jack Sharkey. The two performers showed that issues beyond power politics plagued the family. As Geoffrey, Mr. Sharkey confronted Ms. Morris about his childhood. He explained that she and the king treated him with indifference during his upbringing. This scene provided some much-needed humanization for the Plantagenet family.

Robert Repici played King Phillip II as a cunning conniver. In a brilliant scene opposite Michael J. Pliskin, Mr. Repici showed just how calculating Philip could be. Mr. Pliskin expressed his character’s tender feelings towards Philip. The clever way he and Mr. Repici slowed down their conversation enhanced the scene’s impact. Mr. Repici later explained to Henry that he behaved as he did with Richard in order to annoy the king.

When each of the king’s sons asked for Philip’s assistance, he agreed to aid their efforts to secure the crown. When they realized that all of them approached Philip with the same request, Mr. Repici sat back in his chair sporting an impish grin. He seemed as entertained as the audience watching Henry and his sons attack one another for their scheming.

Mr. Repici performed another excellent display of Philip’s ruthlessness. Ms. Darrel implored him to stop her wedding to one of Henry’s sons. “I’m your sister,” she yelled. Mr. Repici gently stroked her face and then thrust her towards the altar.

Elizabeth Darrell’s character served as a pawn in the Plantagenet’s family’s myriad manipulations. By the end of the story Alais Capet transitioned into an uncouth political practitioner herself. Ms. Darrel made her character’s change credible.

Joseph Colasante showed the essence of the crown’s heir apparent: John. Adopting the diction of a spoiled child, he whined about his right to ascend to the throne. After developing an intense passion for brandy wine, he stumbled about the stage like a drunkard.

Jackie Spence designed stellar costuming for this production. The purple shirt with the fleur-de-lis Mr. Repici wore befitted a French monarch. Mr. Jackowski’s red robe enhanced his royal persona. Their crowns also appeared authentic. Ms. Morris’ green blouse with golden embroidery aided in transforming her into a Medieval monarch.

Matthew Gallagher managed the sound design. Matthew Weil served as the Lighting Designer. Alyssa DeLuca stage managed. Nathan Kunst worked as the show’s Technical Director. Melissa Harnois managed the properties. Bruce A. Curless served as the Producing Artistic Director.

With all the intrigue, family issues, and relentless ambition, The Lion in Winter will appeal to fans of films such as The Godfather and Goodfellas. Those with an interest in Dr. Henry Kissinger’s tomes on realpolitik will find it enjoyable, as well. The show runs through March 22nd. With the amount of conflict in this story, it’s doubtful this lion will go out like a lamb.

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