The Lion in Winter
Even fading lights couldn't dim the glow of Austin Playhouse's lovely staging
Reviewed by Jillian Owens, Fri., Dec. 2, 2011
The Lion in Winter
Austin Playhouse temporary facility, 18001⁄2 Simond
Through Dec. 18
Running time: 2 hr., 30 min.
The folks at Austin Playhouse are madly in love with their art. Not only have they created a perfectly lovely production of James Goldman's hysterical historical drama The Lion in Winter, but they've also created a sleek, modern temporary space in which to stage it. A dedicated troupe of volunteers labored for a month to pitch this glowing white tent, an IKEA version of a theatre that sits next door to the site of the Playhouse's future home in the Mueller development.
Power generators added to the opening-night buzz. An infectious sense of achievement emanated from beaming Playhouse Producing Artistic Director Don Toner and his staff as they watched the well-seasoned and excellently directed cast, led by dream team Huck Huckaby and Babs George as estranged royal couple Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Then, just as King Henry raised his broadsword above his head to execute eldest son Richard (Ben Wolfe) in the play's dramatic climax, the generators' gentle hum faded ominously and the lights went out. All of them. Plunged into semidarkness, the lionhearted Huckaby led the cast to push through the play's final minutes. Someone pointed a few Maglites toward the stage just as George uttered the funniest line of the evening: "We're jungle creatures, Henry, and the dark is all around us." I joined the rest of the stunned audience in uproarious, cathartic laughter.
Before the generators failed, the cast had capered through Goldman's loosely historical take on an animalistic royal family, featuring a pack of rapacious, backstabbing princes (Brock England, Wolfe, and Jason Newman) whom the feisty Queen Eleanor pushes to the brink of a vicious war of succession when she shows up at Christmas court in 1183 from a decadelong imprisonment. Though the actors occasionally stumbled over lines, it was clear that they had rehearsed tirelessly to get Goldman's snappy, sitcomish dialogue up to a rapid-fire clip, which they have no doubt mastered since opening night. The Lion in Winter's dialogue may sound like a modern dysfunctional family comedy, but this production's technical elements converge to create a medieval wonderland, with luxurious period costumes by Diana Huckaby that stand out against a plain stone set, smooth lute interludes courtesy of the Gunn Brothers' sound design, and excellent (if short-lived) lighting by Don Day that recalls a castle's dim glow.
The Lion in Winter is lovingly produced, directed, and acted, and nothing proved that more to me than the deft handling of an opening night crisis in Austin Playhouse's beautiful new tent. As Shakespeare's Silvius says, love is to be all made of sighs and tears, all faith and service and fantasy and passion and wishes. And so is Austin Playhouse for theatre.