The Lion in Winter: What Family Doesn’t Have its Ups and Downs?

Newark becomes twelfth century France as Chapel Street Players presents The Lion in Winter, James Goldman’s 1966 play depicting the personal and political conflicts of Henry II of England, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, their children and their guests during Christmas 1183. The play stars John Barker, Corinne McMahon, Sean McGuire, Paul Henry, Steve Travers, Cindy Starcher, and Timothy Sheridan under the direction of Gwen Armstrong Barker.

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Cindy Starcher,  Paul Henry ( photo by: Peter Kuo )

It’s Christmas 1183 at Henry II of England’s castle in Chinon, Anjou, Angevin Empire. Eleanor, whom Henry has had imprisoned since 1173 for attempting to kill him, is arriving at Chinon for a holiday visit with her family. The story, which has themes of sibling rivalry, infidelity, parental favoritism, and abusive power, centers around a battle for the throne between Henry and Eleanor, their three surviving sons Richard, Geoffrey, and John, and their Christmas Court guest, the King of France, Philip II Augustus, who was the son of Eleanor’s ex-husband, Louis VII of France. Henry favors John (since his eldest son and namesake is deceased), the sulky and sullen youngest son, who is in all ways a spoiled brat, as his successor while Eleanor backs Richard, a more virile and regal choice. Meanwhile, Geoffrey schemes in the background as the family engages in a dynastic chess match with the crown as the prize and Alais, Philip’s half-sister, who has been at court since she was betrothed to Richard at age eight, but has since become Henry’s mistress, an unwilling pawn in this grueling stalemate.

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John Barker, Corrine McMahon ( photo by: Peter Kuo )

Goldman wrote Lion some four years after Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and although this twelfth century battle royal echoes that greater play, the historical fact-based work may not resonate quite so well with contemporary audiences, so Goldman infused his play with modern day jocularity to help us relate to these Plantagenet schemers. It works to a degree. Lion is more historical farce than Shakespearian drama and plays much funnier on stage than the more solemn 1968 film starring Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn with an overabundance of one-liners such as, “What shall we hang, the holly or each other?” And this gem by Eleanor, “Henry’s bed is Henry’s province, he can people it with sheep for all I care… which on occasion he has done.” The scene in which Henry arrives in Philip’s bedroom for round two of their political negotiations, only to discover that all three of his sons are cowering behind tapestries and have been plotting against him plays more like a Feydeau farce (or at least a Joe Orton one). The comedy becomes rather spicy when Henry learns that manly Richard the Lionheart, with all his prickling aggression has been having a gay fling with Philip.

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Sean McGuire, Paul Henry ( photo by: Peter Kuo )

What really drives the play is the relationship between Henry II and his once beloved queen. The marital slugfest between Henry (John Barker) and Eleanor (Cindy Starcher) is like Albee’s George and Martha, each striking sparks off of each other like swords against stone in furious quarrels. Equally shocking are the sudden kindhearted moments where we discover the vestiges of their love and tenderness. Barker delivers a nice performance, swaggering around the stage with a mixture of rage and charming wit. Starcher affectingly suggests a woman all too aware that she is no longer in her prime, but who refuses to give ground to her husband. When Henry and Eleanor tear chunks of flesh from one another like two vultures, it makes for good theater.

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Timothy Sheridan, Steve Travers ( photo by: Peter Kuo )

Steve Travers does a fine turn as Richard, the aggressive, handsome warrior and future king. Paul Henry stands out as the cold, amoral schemer Geoffrey. He’s attractive, charming, and has the strongest intellect of the family. Sean McGuire’s characterization of John is a bit more puzzling. John is described as spoiled, fearful, and weak with a boyish outlook. McGuire’s portrayal of John, however, is not so much overindulged, malcontent teen as it is gay and campy, which may not be the intent, but either through direction or interpretation, comes off that way. Nevertheless, McGuire provides some great comic moments. Corinne McMahon plays Alais, Henry’s mistress, with grace and quiet confidence while Timothy Sheridan delivers a splendid performance as Philip who is impressive and handsome. Philip is not as adept at manipulation as Henry, but acquires greater skill as the play unfolds.

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John Barker, Cindy Starcher ( photo by: Peter Kuo )

Gwen Armstrong-Barker does a nice job with this production. Although long at nearly three hours, the play moves along and doesn’t get too bogged down. However, a purple pillow upon which to sit my ass is sorely needed. The scene changes are overlong and involved, with several people moving about, placing and replacing props as if they were making it up on the spot. Curtis King and Gwen Armstrong-Barker deserve high marks for their set design. Joseph Pukatsch, in addition to filling the role of stage manager, also did nice work as the sound and lighting designer. Finally, compliments to Sean McGuire for costume design. 

However terrible your own yuletide celebrations prove; however vicious the infighting, they are nothing compared to Henry II’s Christmas party at his castle Chinon in 1183. The Lion in Winter runs through November 23rd. Call the box office at (302) 368-2248 or visit http://www.chapelstreetplayers.org to reserve your tickets today.

Pippin, On The Right Track

Pippin, the Tony Award-winning 1972 musical from Roger O. Hirson (Bob Fosse also contributed to the libretto) and Stephen Schwartz, opened on the Chapel Street Players stage Friday evening. Sarah Nowak directs this dark and groovy coming-of-age pop musical which stars Ian Yue, Gabrielle Rambo, Jason Beil, Danielle Finlay, Tyler Ward, Kathy Buterbaugh, Reneé O’Leary, Bridgette DuBrey, and Jamie Depto and includes the acting talents of Genevieve Aucoin, Caitlin Custer, Tony DelNegro, Kaitlyn Diehl, Lacey Eriksen, Leeia Ferguson, and Kathy Harris. Continue reading “Pippin, On The Right Track”

You Absolutely Need A Girls’ Weekend

Girls’ Weekend, the farcical comedy by Karen Schaeffer, premiered on the Chapel Street Players stage Friday evening (2/22). Don Pruden, who is celebrating his 31st year with CSP, ably directs this delightful romp. Girl’s Weekend stars Lori Ann Johnson, Michelle Opalesky, Kelly Reeves, Cortez Skipper, Gabrielle Rambo, Timothy Sheridan, Ahmed Khan, and Kevin Freel.

What happens when you plan a girls’ weekend with four women in a remote cabin in the middle of nowhere during a snowstorm with copious amounts of wine? I’ll tell you. It’s a recipe for fun. Secretly add a few more ingredients like a husband, a boyfriend, a drunken townie, a local, pie-loving sheriff, some weed, a few sleeping pills, and stir the pot (no pun intended), and you get a rip-roaring good time!
Continue reading “You Absolutely Need A Girls’ Weekend”

Dead Man’s Cell Phone

Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Sarah Ruhl’s farce that explores the themes of mortality and how technology can paradoxically unite and isolate us in the digital age, premiered on the Chapel Street Players stage Friday evening. Directed by Tanya Lazar with the acting talents of Lindsay Brahl, Ray Barto, Marlene Hummel, Cindy Starcher, Sean Kelly, Tricia Sullivan, Meg Barton, and Nicole Pierce, the play won a Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding New Play when it premiered at the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in Washington D. C. on June 4, 2007. Continue reading “Dead Man’s Cell Phone”

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dan Wasserman’s stage adaptation of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, which premiered on Broadway November 13, 1963 and ran for 82 performances with two revivals (off-Broadway, 1971, and Broadway, 2001) and inspired a film version starring Jack Nicholson, premiered on the Chapel Street Players stage Friday evening. Brian M. Touchette (It’s A Wonderful Life) is at the helm of this latest CSP production which has become a modern day American classic. Susan Boudreaux (last seen in Murder on Cue) has taken the assistant director’s chair this time out. OFOTCN stars (in order of appearance), Arthur D. Paul, Chis Hankenson, Stephen M. Ashby, Michael D. Peco, Joe Pukatsch, Michelle Opalesky, Shelli Haynes, Kristin Williamson, Alan Harbaugh, Stephen Ross Ashby, Josh Pelikan, Frank Newton, André Wilkins, Matthew Brown, Scott F. Mason, Pete Matthews, Amy Bucco, and Krista Williams.

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The humdrum of an Oregon state mental hospital ward is thrown into chaos when Randle P. McMurphy manages to get himself committed, opting to serve his time “for repeated outbreaks of passion that suggest the possible diagnosis of [a] psychopath” in the institution to avoid hard labor at a work farm. McMurphy believes his sentence will be easier in the hospital, but realizes his error when he clashes with Head Nurse Ratched, a fierce martinet. In defiance, McMurphy takes control of the ward, doing what the medical professionals could not. He inspires a presumed deaf and dumb man to speak, he leads other patients out of introversion, stages a revolt to watch the World Series on TV, and arranges a wild party with booze and floosies. Ratched’s punishment for these transgressions is swift and merciless. This landmark drama highlights the despotic environments in mid-20th century state mental hospitals. Psychiatric medicines had, by then, become part of the treatment plan, but such barbaric practices as electric shock therapy and frontal lobotomies were still practiced, especially in the treatment of violent patients.

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Mason is well-known to CSP audiences both on and off the stage. He’s a fine actor and quite likeable as McMurphy, a crass and sarcastic minor criminal who finds ways to challenge Ratched’s strict authority and encourages an uprising. I was somewhat bemused by the raspy, Popeye-like voice with which Mason chose to portray the character and the unexplained, sporadic physical ailment that seems to plague McMurphy, but despite those things, Mason succeeds in winning the audience over, portraying McMurphy’s warmth, humor, and strength of character as he leads the other patients in revolt.

Ratched (Haynes) is the quintessential villain. The Machiavellian head nurse reigns supreme over the asylum, her own personal island of misfit toys. Haynes’ Ratched plays more subtly at first, her counterfeit compassion slowly dissolving, revealing her manipulative and masochistic nature as she bullies her patients—as well as Dr. Spivey (Matthews)—into submission. Haynes plays the tyrannical nurse to perfection with her artificial smile and stoic demeanor, never retreating, even in the face of McMurphy’s most loathsome taunts and pranks.

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The ensemble group of inmates in this looney bin is exceptional and they are what allows this drama to flow so easily. Character commitment throughout the production is extraordinary and consistently displayed. Arthur D. Paul delivers a touching performance as Chief Bromdon, a Native American who feigns being a deaf mute for years out of fear that he is not big enough to fight the system. Stephen Ross Ashby (Billie Bibbit) is endearing as a stuttering young man who’s spent his entire life wallowing in self-reproach, feeling he’s a disappointment to everyone, desperately seeking his mother’s approval, and who just wants to find someone who’ll love him. Alan Harbaugh (Harding), Frank Newton (Cheswick), André Wilkins (Martini), and Josh Pelikan (Scanlon) make up the core quintet of the asylum (which includes Billie). Their antics deliver huge laughs such as when Martini deals cards to players he’s hallucinated and licks the erotic playing card Randle shows him. Pelikan is just insanely funny as Scanlon. Kristin Williamson is a hoot as Ratched’s timid nursing assistant, garnering giggles with her fearful outbursts. Amy Bucco, Krista Williams, Michelle Opalesky, Michael D. Peco, and Chris Hankenson all deliver solid performances as Candy Starr, Sandy, and Aides Williams, Warren, and Turkle, respectively. Matthew Brown (Buckley), with his shocking crucifixion poses and side-splitting larks, gains the audience’s full attention without uttering a word. Even Stephen M. Ashby, and Joe Pukatsch (Chronic Patients 1 and 2) were quite effective as “chronics,” all their conditions perfectly articulated physically and emotionally.

Brian Touchette does a fine job directing the production, setting a nice pace to keep the action flowing, making great use of the stage, and managing the large cast. Touchette also designed the set, partnering with Scott Mason, Michelle Cullen, and Pete Matthews among others to bring it from concept to reality. The direction CSP took in designing and building the set was refreshingly different from other productions I’ve seen—slightly nightmarish and industrialized versus pristine and antiseptic. Special effects/Pyrotechnics and video imagery are spectacular, kudos to Ray Barto and Peter Kuo. Lighting and costumes are also first rate.

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a sobering American drama packaged as a circus side show that has the audience laughing right up to the mind-altering end. The benefits of theater as therapy cannot be overstated. My prescription is a brief stay at the Chapel Street Asylum. A group therapy session with the resident psycho-ceramics (the cracked pots of mankind) is highly recommended. You’d be crazy to miss One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest which runs through September 29th. Call the box office at (302) 368-2248 or visit http://www.chapelstreetplayers.org to reserve your tickets today.

The Memory of Water

The Memory of Water, a comedy by English playwright Shelagh Stephenson that won the Laurence Oliver Award for Best Comedy when it premiered at the Hampstead Theater in 1996, has come to the Chapel Street Players stage. Director Kathleen M. Kimber helms this latest CSP production that stars: Susan Boudreaux, Susie Moak, Lori Ann Johnson, and Cyndie Romer. Dave Hastings and Frank Newton round out the talented ensemble cast.

Continue reading “The Memory of Water”

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