"THE LION IN WINTER," through Jan. 19, Pioneer Theatre Company, 300 S. 1400 East (801-581-6961 or pioneertheatre.org); running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)
SALT LAKE CITY — Ah, there's nothing quite like family at the holidays. And if that family is the royal Plantagenet clan of 1183, such as chewed the scenery at the Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre Friday night, that is probably a good thing.
Playwright James Goldman's 1966 historical drama "The Lion in Winter," running through Jan. 19 and directed by Wes Grantom, isn't short on turncoat schemers and wily manipulators, and Pioneer Theatre Company's handsome production does justice to the whole power-hungry, fictionalized group.
Even for nonhistory buffs, some of the play's characters might be familiar: Richard the Lionheart, King John (the "phony king of England" in Disney's animated "Robin Hood") and Eleanor of Aquitaine, England's most famous gothic queen. They are three of the play's cast of seven who make and break alliances with astonishing speed over the course of this two-hour-plus production.
The play opens on Christmas Eve with England's Henry II, played with a deep humanity and gorgeous swagger by Esau Pritchett, explaining to his lovely young mistress Alais (Maryam Abdi) why he has invited his family over for Christmas — including his wife Eleanor (Celeste Ciulla), who he imprisoned for the last 10 years after she made an attempt on his life. Henry wants the group together when he reveals which of his three sons will be his successor.
Richard, the eldest and most thuggish son, played with a bloodthirsty intensity by William Connell, is Eleanor's choice for king, but Henry has his eye on their youngest son, played with a wonderful daftness by Austin Reed Alleman. It's not hard to see why his brothers hate him and use him, nor why his father favors him, such is Alleman's ability to be both weak and endearing. And then there's poor Geoffrey, the oft-forgotten middle son. Damian Jermaine Thompson's Geoffrey is fiercely intelligent but furious at his impotent role in the family. The three brothers are best described by their mother as a "greedy little trinity."
France's King Philip (Grayson DeJesus) and his sister Alais round out the Christmas party, and although they are not immediate family, the two of them have a vested interest in the outcome of Henry's decision — especially Alais who, raised by Eleanor and in love with Henry, is betrothed Richard. With her sweet bearing, Alais functions as the Shakespearean fool of the play, seeing troubles others do not but largely powerless to do anything about them.
Lording over the group are Henry and Eleanor, or rather Pritchett and Ciulla, who strut, shout and never seem to say a sincere thing throughout the play. Ciulla playing Eleanor — a role made famous by Katharine Hepburn's Oscar-winning turn in 1968 — leaned into the role's theatricality, making her queen a woman always performing, tossing off quips with a studied air and never quite revealing the real woman inside the royal robes. The historical Eleanor was a woman to contend with — twice a queen, fabulously wealthy, leader of a crusade and multiple armies — and Ciulla made her most real when contemplating her life as a prisoner. For a woman with such an independent spirit, being locked up seemed to be Eleanor's most devastating hell and Ciulla well conveyed her fury.
But the man who imprisoned her didn't seem all that fussed by her banishment. Pritchett's Henry was every inch the king — tall and broad, he wore his golden crown and fur-lined robes like he was born in them. He was understanding, clever, inclined to double cross for any purpose that suited him and surprisingly gentle and tender — especially in his scenes with Abdi's Alais. But he was most interesting when sparring with Ciullla's Eleanor. Like flint and steel, they were easy to spark, quick to burn.
Speaking of Henry's fur robe, Phillip R. Lowe's costumes were sumptuous, all furs and jeweled-colored velvets fit for royal bodies. Likewise, Jason Simms' stage design — four gothic arches ingeniously lit from above and below by Driscoll Otto — provided a cozy backdrop to the drama onstage.Comment on this story
There were times when this production felt a little one-note — there really was a lot of familial unpleasantness — but the strong cast and the play's clever writing caused this historical drama to feel, if perhaps not familiar, then at least contemporary. It was the sort of family affair that made the phrase "I'll be home for Christmas" not a promise, but a threat.
Content advisory: "The Lion in Winter" contains plenty of anger and double crossings, as well as a little bawdy talk, but would likely be rated PG, according to Pioneer Theatre Company_._