‘Lion in Winter’ Proves Ferocious at Laguna Playhouse

by Christopher Trela

November 15, 2019


Betrayal. Treachery. Sibling rivalry. Adultery. Accusations hurled at will. Alliances forged and dissolved at a moment’s notice.

Just another day for the Plantagenet family of Britain, as noted in the fictional historical dramedy “The Lion in Winter,” having a rousing revival at Laguna Playhouse through Nov. 24.

Comedic in tone, dramatic in action, “The Lion in Winter” tells the story of the Plantagenet family during Christmas 1183, who compete to inherit a kingdom. Queen Eleanor has been kept in prison since raising an army against her husband, King Henry II. Let out only for holidays, Eleanor clashes with Henry and her three sons, who in turn strike alliances with each other to band against her and Henry — but those alliances quickly splinter while new ones are formed.

“Every family has its ups and down,” Eleanor observes at one point during the performance; although few families go to such extremes.

This historical drama with a healthy dose of humor thrown in is fictional, although the characters are drawn from history. No matter — they are an entertaining lot that plot and scheme with abandon. This is not “Game of Thrones,” although “The Lion in Winter” characters might have been at home in that world.

Watching “The Lion in Winter” you realize that it’s a chess game of sorts, with a king and queen plus pawns that parry and thrust yet cannot find their way to a checkmate.

The entertainment is in watching the characters interact with each other. Fortunately, Laguna Playhouse has a director and actors who seemingly relish the opportunity to engage in the play’s verbal swordplay.

Sheldon Epps, longtime artistic director at Pasadena Playhouse, directs “The Lion in Winter” with a steady hand, letting the plot, and temperaments, simmer in the first half and boil over in the second.

Leading the way on stage as Henry is Gregory Harrison, whose four-decade career includes “Falcon Crest,” “Trapper John, M.D.,” and “Judging Amy.” He’s a commanding presence on stage, as much for his evil charm as for his implied strength.

Matching him is Frances Fisher as Eleanor. Fisher has starred in over 30 theatrical productions but is perhaps best known for her performance as Kate Winslet’s mother in “Titanic.” That ship sank, but her performance in “The Lion in Winter” is full steam ahead as she agilely spars with her sons and Henry.

The fine supporting cast add layers of deceit combined with sturdy bellowing, a necessary trait in Act 2.

By play’s end, not much is resolved, but the characters are more interested in continuing their stalemate chess game then in quantifying solutions. At least they’ve taken us along on their convoluted and engaging journey.