The Lion in Winter

“The Lion in Winter,” James Goldman’s caustic, bitter comedy about a family of English royals after each other’s throats and property, is meant to be disconcerting. After all, the bickering is almost non-stop, the betrayal nearly without limit, and the sharply worded epithets fairly drip off the pages of the script.

Yet as directed by Loraine Edwards and performed by the Actors’ Repertory Theatre Ensemble at the Castle Theatre Festival, the blend of comedy and drama is more uncomfortable than it should be. The deceitful and sarcastic dialogue doesn’t crackle like it should, and many lines that are written with humor came across without it on opening night.

The one character who seems to be going for laughs at all is John (Marc Shaw), the pimple-faced teen-ager who is a possible heir to King Henry’s throne in 1183. Problem is, Shaw goes too much for the laughs. The character admittedly is written to be so buffoonish as to be out of place among his erudite fellows, but Shaw takes that to the extreme, doing far more physical shtick than seems appropriate in a play as smart as this one.

Scott Bronson plays King Henry, a powerful monarch who must decide which of his three sons to leave his kingdom to, hardly loving or trusting any of them. Complicating matters is his wife, Eleanor (Barta Heiner), whom he has locked in a castle due to her tendency to lead civil wars against him, and who wants the throne to go to Richard (Cameron Deaver), while Henry thinks John should be heir.

Then there’s Geoffrey (Christopher Clark), the plotting, scheming middle child; Alais (Susan Davis), the king’s mistress and supposed fiancee of at least one of the princes; and French King Philip (Jared Stull), Alais’s brother, in town this Christmas season to make sure a wedding happens (or else he wants his dowry back).

It’s all very complicated, and the twists and turns of the story would take a review twice this long to summarize. There is not a bad actor among the cast, nearly all of them having given fine performances in other local productions in recent months.

Yet again, something is not quite up to par. Bronson’s Henry is un-king-like in his demeanor and speech, a choice that makes him seem too much Regular Guy and not enough Your Highness. The result: When he howls at the end of the first act that “all my sons are gone,” he’s no raging monarch experiencing a mighty fall as he feels the knife of betrayal in his heart; he’s just a father who’s mad at his boys.

None of which is to say this is a bad production. Rather, it’s a slightly flawed production of a brilliant script, and still well worth watching.

Stull plays boy-king Philip, who is supposed to be 17, as if he were actually 17. This could be interpreted as mere inexperience on the part of the actor — i.e., he just doesn’t know how to act regal — but I rather think it’s a conscious choice, a decision to play Philip as if he’s still just a kid, despite being king.

Deaver and Clark are good as Richard and Geoffrey, giving the roles the passion and energy characteristic of both actors.

Finally, Heiner plays Eleanor with great sympathy and passion, the best performance in the show. There are moments when she actually wants peace and love in the family — only to have another scheme proposed to her, which she agrees to, pausing only briefly (and poignantly) to acknowledge the irony of her actions. Her performance is nuanced, sad and tragic, giving the play most of its best moments — her statement that “we have everything but hope” among the most wrenching.

It is getting harder and harder to review shows in Provo, because it seems like every show I see, I know all the cast members. In this case, only Scott Bronson was a stranger to me; the rest were not only friends, but some of them really GOOD friends! Plus Loraine Edwards directed it, and I love her, having worked under her expert guidance in BYU's production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" a few months earlier.

The story goes that Loraine began directing "Lion" based on my preferences: "Oh, don't do that, Eric won't like that," etc. I find this very amusing and flattering, but I really hope no one bases their whole happiness on my reviews. What I say should be viewed as constructive criticism and/or honest praise, and never as personal attacks and/or personal love notes.