Saturday, April 30, 2011

Review: ‘Lion' reveals emotion at Lakewood Playhouse

Joseph Grant plays King Henry II and Syra Beth Puett is Eleanor the queen in “The Lion in Winter.”

Published in The News Tribune, April 29, 2011

There is much to recommend “The Lion in Winter” at Lakewood Playhouse: a well-crafted script by James Goldman, strong acting by Joseph Grant as Henry II and Syra Beth Puett as Queen Eleanor, good direction by John Munn and a beautiful set by Blake R. York.

On the downside, it is a long play at two and three-quarter hours (including a 15-minute intermission) and it is slow-moving despite high drama and sharp and witty dialogue.

People who remember the 1968 movie with Peter O’Toole or the 2003 film version with Patrick Stewart might expect a magisterial and larger-than-life Henry II. Grant takes a different tack, playing the king as a more life-sized person. We sense a very real and conflicted human underneath his royal pretensions. Although he embodies ruthless power and ambition, we can see that the man inside could have been a scared little boy who just needed to be loved – much like his youngest son, John (Mike McGrath).

Puett lights up the stage as Queen Eleanor. The queen is a very complex character. Conniving and with a heart of steel, she nonetheless can be loving toward her husband and her sons – and even tender with her husband’s mistress, Alais (Kat Christensen), whom she raised as if she were a daughter. It is all a pretense, and the audience is let in on it. This is probably the best performance I’ve seen from Puett – seen most recently in “Ring Around the Moon” and “Mousetrap” at Lakewood Playhouse and “On Golden Pond” at Tacoma Little Theatre. In this performance, she makes the audience almost believe her time and again as she manipulatively pretends to love each of these other characters.

The other outstandingly complicated character is Henry’s son Geoffrey (Alex Smith). He is by far the most insidiously devious among a family of scheming and self-serving people, and Smith plays him with complexity and nuance. There are no big dramatic gestures from Smith’s Geoffrey, but there are many sly and subtle expressions.

The other two sons of Henry II are more one-dimensional. Richard the Lionheart (Bryan K. Bender) is proud and angry, and Bender plays him as full of bluster. With stiff posture and clenched fist, standing much taller than anyone else in the cast, Bender makes Richard almost a parody of the fierce warrior he was known to be. He is an unlikable character, and my reaction to Bender’s performance was conflicted.

Also one-dimensional are the youngest son, John (McGrath) and King Philip of France (Dylan Twiner). McGrath is a student at Stadium High School and a relative newcomer to area stages. He captures John’s youthful neediness believably. Philip’s one overriding character trait is smugness, and Twiner portrays that so well that I, frankly, wanted to wipe that smug smile off his face. There is nothing likeable about either of these characters, which makes it difficult to appreciate the acting; but these actors do a credible job of bringing these unlikable characters to life, which is quite an accomplishment for young and relatively inexperienced actors.

The other young actor in this play, Christensen, has crammed a lot of stage experience into a few years. I first recognized her acting talent a little more than three years ago in “The Sound of Music.” During the past two seasons, she has graduated to grown-up roles and fills them with style and grace. As Alais, she too is disingenuous, but is one of the more sympathetic characters in this play, helpless and at the mercy of two merciless kings – her brother and her lover – not to mention a manipulative queen and three brothers at war with each other for the crown.

“The Lion in Winter” is a complicated period drama that, for all of its complexities, is easy to follow.

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