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Schemes and sarcasm, wiles and wit – ‘The Lion in Winter’

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From left: Mark Bilyk as Henry II, Julie Arnold-Lisnet as Eleanor, and Aimee Gerow as Alais in True North Theatre's "The Lion in Winter." From left: Mark Bilyk as Henry II, Julie Arnold-Lisnet as Eleanor, and Aimee Gerow as Alais in True North Theatre's "The Lion in Winter." (Photo by Chris Goetting/RCS)

ORONO – A local theater company is raising the curtain on a new Orono performance space with a roar.

True North Theatre is presenting their production of James Goldman’s “The Lion in Winter” at the former St. Mary’s Catholic Church – now known as the Old St. Mary’s Reception Hall - on Main Street in Orono. The show – directed by TNT artistic director Angela Bonacasa – runs through February 4.

The play was written in 1966, but the story is perhaps best known for the 1968 film version that starred Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn and landed Hepburn the third of her four Best Actress Oscars. It’s the sordid saga of King Henry II of England and his machinations and manipulations with regards to his family and his legacy as he seeks to cement his place in history.

The year is 1183. Christmastime is here. Rattling around a castle in the land of Chinon, France, King Henry II (Mark Bilyk) finds himself forced to come to terms with the notion of his own impending mortality. Despite his many efforts to stave off the notion – including an affair with his much younger mistress Alais (Aimee Gerow), who is also a longtime ward of his family – Henry must make some decisions with regards to what happens to the throne after he’s gone.

It being the holidays, Henry has allowed his wife Eleanor (Julie Arnold Lisnet) – who he has kept largely imprisoned in recent years – to join the rest of the family for Christmas. Said family includes eldest son Richard (Paul Nicklas), a fearsome warrior; middle son Geoffrey (Tyler Costigan), a shrewd negotiator; and youngest son John (Padraic Harrison), a spoiled whiner.

When the young ruler of France King Philip (Conor Kenny) comes calling in an effort to collect on a longtime debt, Henry is forced into action.

And what action it is. Both Henry and Eleanor are master manipulators, engaged in a constant war of words. Each has their favored son as far as the throne is concerned – Henry prefers John, Eleanor prefers Richard – but their constant verbal jousting results in a whirling fog of half-truths and deceit. Neither is willing to show their hand to the other as their mutual feelings flash like lightning from affection to contempt and back again.

Meanwhile, each of the sons is left confused as to what his role in the kingdom’s future might be. Alliances are formed and reformed, coalescing around a consensus only to break apart and swirl into another configuration. And Alais is left trapped between her love for Henry and his love for his legacy, not knowing just how she truly fits into his world.

What you probably expect from “The Lion in Winter” is a period piece, a costume drama. And you definitely get that. What you might not expect is a story that is packed with biting wit and withering sarcasm. There’s nothing fusty about this play – there’s a whole lot of humor here to accompany a healthy dose of palace intrigue. It’s seriously funny and funnily serious … and a perfect fit for both this company and this beautiful new space.

Director Bonacasa displays a light touch; she’s unafraid to let the witty density of the script unspool at its own pace. That pace is quick but never fast, a fine distinction that nevertheless can mark the difference between a decent showing and an excellent one. Her utilization of the space is bold as well, embracing the possibilities presented by the venue. It all adds up to a remarkable experience.

An experience made all the more remarkable by some outstanding work from the ensemble. Lisnet’s performance is an exquisite explosion, slashing with velvet claws even as she coos and purrs. Her Eleanor’s emotional ebbs and flows are as powerful as the tides, albeit cycling far more quickly. Bilyk’s Henry is smug and self-involved, projecting a monomania that is deliciously off-putting. One can hear the gears turning as he schemes, capturing the sense of intractable confidence that is central to the King’s being. And when the two face off against one another, they might as well be wielding foils, so deft and razorlike is their verbal fencing. They elevate one another beautifully.

As for the three sons, the sense of sibling rivalry is palpable and made all the more effective by the vigorous and varied choices made by each. Nicklas plays Richard with a ramrod straight spine and a steadfast manner, every inch the warrior, while also allowing occasional glimpses beneath the veneer. Costigan’s Geoffrey is as oily as they come, wheedling and insinuating with every breath; you can practically feel him considering all of the angles every time he opens his mouth. And Harrison captures the petulance of John not just with the lines, but between the lines as well – he embodies the notion of the coddled boy prince with a pouty, foot-stomping delight.

Gerow walks the line between devotion and defiance with exquisite balance; her Alais is both a lover and a fighter. Hints of haughtiness mingle with moments of starry-eyed love and staid self-assurance to create something complex. And Kenny is a puffed-up joy as King Philip, blending inexperience with instinct to convey a sense of someone whose gifts still outpace his maturity – but not for long.

(I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the interstitial performers. Holly Costar and Brittany Turnbull sing period music through the scene changes that is lovely and haunting. It’s a wonderful touch.)

The production team has done phenomenal work here – particularly considering what it takes to deal with a new venue. Tricia Hobbs has put together a scenic design with a wonderful flow, one that connects with the space while also creating something both flexible and aesthetically engaging. Lighting a space like this presents its own set of challenges, but Scout Hough finds ways to delineate space and manipulate shadow in always interesting ways. And Clare Bolduc’s costumes are ornate and lush, capturing the period in a way that ties everything together.

True North Theatre might be a relatively new company, but they’ve definitely hit the ground running. “The Lion in Winter” is a wonderful piece of theater - smart, thoughtful and funny - and a roaring debut for a beautiful new performance space.

Last modified on Wednesday, 31 January 2018 14:18

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