“How dear of you to let me out of jail.” ~ Eleanor
“It’s only for the holidays.” ~ Henry
No matter how unconventional you think your holiday season is going to be this year, there’s no question that the royals of James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter have you beat. After keeping his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, imprisoned for a decade, Henry II has released her just in time to welcome his guest, Philip II, the King of France. The visit, however, is merely an event around which Goldman can construct some of the finest and most devious strategizing and medieval plotting in theater history, and some of its wittiest dialogue.
A story that hangs on its wordplay can sometimes falter in a live setting, but it makes for a perfect audio experience, especially when the sound quality is as good as what Psych Drama Company is offering in their radio version of the play.
We say “radio” now that more and more theaters are turning back to the great tradition of sound-only storytelling, but it’s really more along the lines of theatrical podcasting, and I mean that in the best way possible.
The voices Psych Drama have assembled to tell this story are perfectly matched to their parts, and clearly adept at seizing Goldman’s rich text and making it sing. I could have listened to Brian Dion as King Henry all day, as he chastised his sons and grappled with his worthy foe of a wife. Wendy Lippe as Eleanor is following in the footsteps of some of acting’s greatest–including Rosemary Harris and Katherine Hepburn. I found her delivery to be less harsh than what I’ve seen from the role in the past. She creates a woman who isn’t afraid to use the perception others have of her to get what she wants, and Lippe is able to take full advantage of the close proximity of the listener to showcase all the ways a clipped tone or a softening speech can hit an objective right in the bullseye.
Even if you’re able to witness the play in person, one of the trickiest bits of The Lion in Winter is that there are a decent number of seemingly interchangeable men. That’s not to say that the characterizations are lacking, but that when you have a group of characters all aiming for the same brass ring, and a very tangible and venerable one at that, a lot of extra effort has to be put in to make each man memorable.
I thought it was very smart to slightly alter everyone’s volume level so that, while you could hear everything clearly, you got the sense that loudness is often equated with power in this family. Mark Modena is a forceful presence, and his portrayal of the Lionheart is crystal clear even coming through the airwaves. Mark Prokes strikes just the right balance of charming and sadistic. His interpretation of some of Geoffrey’s best lines made for some of my favorite moments. Francis Sheehan as John had the hard task of playing a character mainly defined by his ill temper, but he captured the young prince’s immaturity beautifully.
Ryan Perry as Philip has some of the hardest text to pull off, and I thought his confidence going into every line was a great help in keeping the pace of the play. The Lion in Winter is one of those warhorses that is never going to be less than two and a half hours, but when done poorly, can easily sail past three. I commend everyone in the company for not savoring speeches, opting instead to use their lines as ammunition and to fire swiftly so they could reload while their counterpart was absorbing the hit.
Much of that attention to detail has to be credited to the co-directors: Lippe and Larry Segel. Along with their technical director Doug Greene, they made a lot of very intelligent artistic decisions, not the least of which was deciding to lean into the play’s loftiness. Many revivals of the show have tried to create a grittier tale of a family-at-war, and while the history certainly supports that, the play itself does not.
This is what I consider to be the best of a specific genre known as cocktail theater. The kind of experience that allows you to enjoy a glass of wine, take in some theater, and find yourself a little lighter afterward while still satisfied — and maybe feeling a little punchy.
But when the punches are being thrown with such verve and sophistication in the space of your imagination, they might just sound like music.
For more information on The Psych Drama Company, go to The Psych Drama Company