The Lion in Winter is not so much a History lesson as it is a dysfunctional love story, and let’s be frank, if we judge by reality TV, and many of us do whether we admit it or not, who doesn’t like a good dysfunctional love story? Add in a crown and a kingdom as the ultimate prize stakes and we’ve got the makings of a really intriguing play.
And, so here we are. A king, his sons, his estranged (read: imprisoned wife) and a mistress who is supposed to be married to the King of France all vie for attention and essentially the title of “king’s favorite.” Speaking as a favorite myself, I’ve seen how disheartening it can be to others when they realize someone else is the favorite, and it can drive one to do a lot of crazy things, many of which we witness in this play. So, clearly I identified with and very much agreed with Shady Shakespeare’s choice of play. There’s a reason this script resonates with the masses. We all have a little bit of crazy in our family, no?
The language of this play is more colloquial than the 1183 setting would have you think, though the loyal Renaissance crowd will still be satisfied I think with the overall tone and style of it. There are lots of great one-liners strewn throughout the play and it was surprisingly easy to follow the plot twists and turns. There are no clear-cut good or bad guys, which is also kind of nice. Instead of taking sides, you can just enjoy the “show” as it were.
This production is led by a provocative, layered and entertaining portrayal of Eleanor. She is nuanced, commanding, manipulative, strong and emotional and the audience was indeed captivated with her. She sets the acting bar very high. There were strong moments by the rest of the ensemble as well, but there were also what seemed like gaps to me. Those standout moments were not all connected. It wasn’t a seamless presentation for me and it made it harder for me to appreciate the really good moments in their entirety as I often felt as though I wasn’t sure how they “got there.” Some of these disconnects may well gel as the run goes on, but for me I would have loved to see those cracks filled in with richer subtext to match Eleanor’s level of care and depth.
Despite the Hoover Theatre being challenging (it’s a slightly bland, cumbersome space, rigid and creaky with a few sight line issues) the design team addresses and masks those challenges quite well with wonderful sets that create a grand visual. The transitions are smooth and the sets are both practical and aesthetically pleasing. Sit as close to the stage as you can, the best seats are in fact in the pit.
Though I wasn’t standing on my feet at the end, the opening night crowd adored it. A juicy 3 jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for this interesting take on royals, romance and power, pretty to look at with a potent performance in Eleanor worth the trip. The Lion in Winter plays at the Historic Hoover Theatre in San Jose through June 23rd.
EPILOGUE: Although Lion in Winter wasn’t one of my most favorite productions ever personally, here’s what I do love. This production (which performs in a very difficult time slot for any theatre company with Graduations, Father’s Day, vacations and free outdoor events/activities competing with it) is mounted not only for the love of theatre, but to help pay for Shady’s Summer Shakespeare in the Park.
Shady Shakespeare celebrates its 13th season this year and if you haven’t visited a production in the beautiful Sanborn Park, you’re missing out. An enchanting outdoor experience where families of every definition of the word, from every background and demographic, dogs included even, can enjoy the fresh, tree-scented, starry-skied, Shakespearean experience. An experience that per their mission, strives to “…share the works of William Shakespeare in a way that demystifies the rich and challenging language without dumbing it down.”
They take the craft that is performing Shakespeare very seriously and do so with an enormous amount of creativity, pride, professionalism and joy. They are committed to providing that Shakespeare experiences to all kids 17 & under for free. They give their actors the experience of performing two shows simultaneously in true Repertory style. They provide a well-mentored structure for growth and training in every aspect of theatrical artistry. They back up their mission with education programs and camps. They are innovative through and through, from their play interpretations right down to their marketing. They are an all-around exemplary theatre company.
And, many of these opportunities for these specific kinds of experiences that Shady provides, are dying. Shady Shakespeare, produces and performs at times (like so many folks in the arts) at great personal financial sacrifice. Grants, donations, and many “day jobs” help pay the bills, but attendance makes up a large piece of the pie. The reliance on attendance is essential to the health of any organization, particularly for the arts, and particularly for what can certainly be considered a niche market.
Too often as of late, an Arts organization has quietly shut its door to the shock and dismay of its audience and people say “If I had known, maybe there was something I could have done to help.” And there is something you can do. What you can do is attend live performances. Anywhere, by any company and attend often, by whatever means you can. Don’t wait until your favorite organization is in dire straits to support them. Whether you’re a lover of the Bard and all things Shakespeare, a general supporter of arts education or whether you’re simply interested in personally enjoying the unique theatre offerings Shady Shakespeare provides, the attendance of this show helps to assure that there is a next show, a next season, and a next generation that is passionate about and knowledgable in how to preserve this special legacy.
Dinner Theatre Pairing: Family is certainly pivotal in The Lion in Winter and Antonella’s Ristorante’s family feel certainly made an immediate and long-lasting impression on me. The food is made fresh daily including stocks for soups and sauces as well as the bread and the atmosphere is warm and seriously hospitable. They strive to make you really feel at home and at my dinner they accommodated a vegetarian, a celiac, a picky eater and someone in a rush. They made substitutions, created side plates, brought food out-of-order and were amazing about our perfect storm of high maintenance questions, request and requirements. Aside from the exceptional service and being just across the street from the theatre, the food was great and portion size above average. Gnocchi Pesto was very substantial, the angel hair past was tender and flavorful, and the pizza was very fresh! There’s something for everyone on the menu and the presentation is traditional, authentic Italian. Tuesdays are three course meals for $14.95 and Wednesday’s are all you can eat spaghetti and meatball nights!