A medieval Christmas in a stony castle made colder by the chill of a husband so put off by his wife that he had her imprisoned doesn’t sound like the cheeriest occasion, or the warmest setting for a play. Adding scheming sons and the fate of England and France in the mix doesn’t improve matters. But don’t be fooled. With “The Lion in Winter,” James Goldman’s 1966 play made famous by Katherine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole’s Oscar-winning film version two years later, we’re reminded that family drama and comedy are as old as politics, that wit and passion that can come alive in any setting, whether it’s a middle age castle somewhere in France, or a storefront theater in Palm Coast. Especially when the production is in the hands of John Sbordone, who chose to make “The Lion in Winter” the last play of the second season at City Repertory Theatre. It opens at 7:30 this evening at City Rep’s Hollingsworth Gallery stage, at City Market Place.
The lion in the title is the aging and crabby Henry II, king of England (played by John Pope). He’s had his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine under house arrest. This being Christmas he’s let her out a bit to see the kids and maybe bond with her husband’s mistress (they’re on French soil, remember, where mistresses get to hang out at their lover’s funeral alongside the requisite spouse). It’s the Year of Our Lord 1183. We’re in Henry’s castle in Anjou. The question underlying the rich and historically complex plot is which of Henry’s three sons will succeed him. The play begins after the arrival of Eleanor (Julia Davidson Truilo). While the sharp dialogue and personal interactions between characters are fictitious, the general events are historically based. Cue chestnuts roasting on an open fire.
The cast is all Sbordone alumni. That aside, you may want to bring a score sheet. Of the three sons, from oldest to youngest, Bruce Popielarski plays Richard the Lion Heart, John Birney plays Geoffrey, and Jonathan Guillot plays John. Kaylee Rotunno takes the role of Alais, who was raised by Henry and Eleanor but is now Henry’s mistress. Brett Cunningham is King Philip II of France—Alais’s half-brother and the son of Eleanor’s ex-husband, Louis VII—who happens to be visiting Henry as his Christmas Court guest. Alais was sent over to the English throne so that she would eventually marry Henry and Eleanor’s son, Richard, but that didn’t happen. In exchange for this arrangement Henry got Aquitaine, one of the richest provinces in France. It’s a problem. And, yes, it’s complicated.
“It’s extraordinarily difficult to reduce this work of art to a sound bite,” says Sbordone, promising that the play is extraordinarily funny and contemporary, in spite of its medieval plot. The action that keeps the story moving along is actually more in line with the way the two spouses shoot barbs back and forth at each other with acidic “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe” flair. And a lot of what the three sons say, down to one of the three’;s sniveling personality, has as much to do with “Fathers and Sons” as with “The Brady Bunch.”
“The definition of tragedy is an action that is full of fear and pity rising to a climax with a cathartic ending,” states Aristotle in his poetics, according to Sbordone, though he hasn’t revisited those pages much since 1972. There’s no need to worry, either, that anything in “The Lion in Winter” will fly over anyone’s head. If you can follow the average prime time soap on CBS, you can follow “The Lion in Winter,” though the similarities don’t go further than that: the play showcases great acting wrapped around a delicious plot. Katherine Hepburn didn’t win the Oscar (as Eleanor) because it’s dull.
“Julia is the perfect fit for Eleanor,” Sbordone says. “The reason is the part demands a marvelous experienced, nuanced actress, who can play a great historical figure and still keep it contemporary. Julia’s background and experience makes her a very good fit.” (Truilo was the co-founder and managing director of the former Seaside Music Theater in Daytona Beach.)
Eleanor is indeed nuanced. For this role, it helped that Truilo was already a history buff, but that doesn’t matter, she says. When it comes to who gets the throne, Truilo codifies the plot to: “Mom wants son one, (Richard the Lion Heart, who went on to have Robin Hood fame) and Dad wants son three (John, the youngest, bumbling and most easily manipulated son who did eventually get the crown and went on to sign the Magna Carter).” Eleanor uses “many faces to get what she wants. She’ll do anything,” Truilo says. The basic dynamic that will keep this play contemporary forever is “people trying to control the future after they’re gone. The relationships between people haven’t changed at all. They still manipulate each other, they still love each other, and try to control each other.”
In fact, to Truilo, Henry and Eleanor’s relationship isn’t quite as caustic as their public or theatrical appearances would make it seem. There’s genuine affection between the two, or maybe that’s just the kink to their partnership. “It’s a very layered relationship. In Goldman’s play, it’s a relationship with someone who’s their intellectual and emotional equal. That’s where they both started. Both harbor that affection for one another and respect each other at the level,” no matter how they treat each other or maybe because of it. Eleanor was actually quite influential when it came to the idea that sprang up after her reign regarding “courtly love,” and that began even while she was imprisoned. “I find her very easy to relate to,” Truilo continues. “She’s quite driven but very passionate about doing what’s right—well, what she believes is right—but none of us can judge that. It’s hard to judge actions through the mores of our own time.”
“The Lion in Winter” takes its place alongside other complex period piece staged at City Rep in the last two seasons. “The Laramie Project,” for example, showcased the reactions to the 1998 murder of Matthew Sheppard, the gay University of Wyoming student. “Twilight” earlier this year looked back at the Los Angeles riots of 1992. “Lion” stretches the geography of time and theme a little.
Because this is the first time City Repertory has touched a period piece that goes back that far, the production secured “period” costumes through the Daytona Playhouse and Daytona State College. The actors will wield props-like weapons and wine decanters to help recreate the dark ages in the dimmed second room of the Palm Coast art gallery.
When it came to his role as Henry II, Pope–who appeared in “Twilight”– says one of the biggest challenges was trying to live up to the role but also to live up to Sbordone’s expectations, who has also played Henry II. “One of the cardinal rules of theater is never to take a role that’s been played by the director,” Pope says. But cardinal rules of theater are routinely broken at City Rep.
“Underlying everything, there’s a gentle side, but it’s hard to show because he’s always bombastic and telling everyone what to do,” Pope says of Henry II (or is it Sbordone?).
This is the time of end-of-season shows all over the place. But, Sbordone says with characteristic modesty, “there’s nothing else going on in the area that will be able to compete with this entertainment. We’re offering something that’s got some meat and is still hilarious.”
But it’s no lack of modesty to call City Repertory’s second season “huge,” as Sbordone calls it. It wasn’t just huge. It was demonic, a pace so frenetic that Sbordone’s friends have counseled him to slow down a bit. And this despite a stint in hospital and rehab for replacement-knee surgery. There was the revival of “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well In Paris,” “Greater Tuna,” George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” “Mark Twain,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Side by Side with Sondheim,” “Twilight,” “Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll,” “The Year of Magical Thinking,” “Welcome to Spoon River,” “Line,” and, starting this weekend, of course, “The Lion in Winter.”
It’s not over of course. Sbordone and theater co-founder and choreographer Diane Ellertsen are planning out the next round of shows that meet the theater criteria of being “thought-provoking and not often seen in the area.” Plans already include a six-actor production of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” with auditions slated for the summer to cover all of next season’s plays. There’s also the annual summer actors’ workshop for serious 15-25-year-old actors and actresses, culminating in a production of the ritual drama called “The Serpent.”
“The Lion in Winter,” written byJames Goldman, directed by John Sbordone, at City Repertory Theater May 17, 18, 23, 24, 25, at 7:30 p.m. and May 19 at 2 p.m. At Palm Coast’s City Repertory Theatre, 160 Cypress Point Parkway–City Marketplace–at Hollingsworth Gallery. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for children. To easily buy tickets online, go here.