Review: ‘The Lion in Winter’ at Vagabond Players

The Lion in Winter’ reaches the pinnacle of high entertainment

Vagabond Players’ The Lion in Winter, expertly directed by Steve Goldklang is a show any theater lover, nay any lover of art must see. The show is spectacular beyond words. This show proves the theorem that theater is a support system for life.

The cast: Front: John Posner, Eric C. Stein, Barbara Madison Hauck. Rear: Michael Zemarel, Cherie Weinert, David Shoemaker, and Nick Huber. Photo by Tom Lauer.

The cast: Front: John Posner, Eric C. Stein, Barbara Madison Hauck. Rear: Michael Zemarel, Cherie Weinert, David Shoemaker, and Nick Huber. Photo by Tom Lauer.

The play follows the “ups and downs” of King Henry II of England (Eric C. Stein), his three sons, his mistress and his wife as he decides, King Lear-like, which son will succeed him on the throne around Christmas, 1183 at his castle in Chinon, France. It comes down to a horse race between Richard Lionheart (David Shoemaker) and John (John Posner). King Henry backs John; his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (Cherie Weinert) backs Richard. If the play was a present day night-time soap opera, there would no doubt be hashtags and memes on Social Media supporting Team Richard or Team John.

Mucking things up to a higher degree is the relationship between King Henry and his mistress Alais (Barbara Madison Hauk), half-sister of King Phillip II of France (Nick Huber). And then there’s Henry’s other son, scheming, black-clad, Malvolio-like Geoffrey (Michael Zemarel), whispering in John’s ear various intrigues and stirring up Cain. Underneath all that is the fact that Richard loves King Phillip II (who is the son of Eleanor’s ex-husband, Louis VII of France).

Ostensibly, the play is about two Kings hashing out a treaty, in this case, a treaty to be sealed by Alais and King Philip getting married. The machinations get murkier from there, with various let’s-make-a-deals for the throne; as you follow them, they may make your brain hurt a little, but it all makes sense in the end. It’s all quite Shakespeare-like.

Cherie Weinert and Eric C. Stein. Photo by Tom Lauer.

Cherie Weinert and Eric C. Stein. Photo by Tom Lauer.

King Henry and Eleanor’s marriage-in-name-only is pain writ large. Their relationship is a study in lovelessness, which yet still holds an ember of love. Henry had had Eleanor imprisoned for the past ten years, yet nothing can keep Eleanor down: “I am the Earth; there is no way around me.” Eleanor’s scheming leads Henry down a dark, regrettable path. After he disowns and imprisons his sons, he’s an “old man in an empty place.”

The performances were astoundingly good, with each actor being in the moment, moment by moment, every moment. More living-and-breathing acting, of the highest magnitude, you will rarely see. Between Stein and Weinert, it’s impossible to say who the “star” is or who “stole the show.” Such platitudes are not applicable here. The cast, individually and collectively was first class.

David Shoemaker and Nick Huber. Photo by Tom Lauer.

David Shoemaker and Nick Huber. Photo by Tom Lauer.

The costumes by Mary Bova and A.T. Jones Costumers were Hollywood-worthy. Eleanor of Aquitaine looked regal and very much the Queen of England and France (she was both in real life). The three brothers and Philip looked courtly, and King Henry was bedecked in a doublet and looked every bit a king—down to his knee-high boots. If King Henry did die in battle, the first thing his enemies would do is grab those boots.

Ah, Roy Steinman and Moe Conn’s set! It looked exactly like the set of The Lion in Winter should: with faux-stone gray walls, period furniture and a regal, intimidating wooden throne. The efficient tech crew moved the walls between scenes to create various rooms and a dungeon to great effect.

This show is a jewel in the crown of local community theater, as is Vagabond Players; the theater is celebrating its 100th year. (The late James Goldman’s play is 50 years old and this is also the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s passing.)

Vagabond Players’ The Lion in Winter reaches the pinnacle of high entertainment. See it, see it, please see it.

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.

The Lion in Winter  plays through May 8, 2016 at Vagabond Players – 806 South Broadway, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410)-563-9135, or purchase them online.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1555.gif

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