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The Lion In Winter
by James Goldman
Directed by Edward Stern
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
January 8, 2016

Ryan Ward, Carol Schultz, Wilson Bridges, Kurt Hellerich, Jeffrey King Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Ryan Ward, Carol Schultz, Wilson Bridges, Kurt Hellerich, Jeffrey King
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Who wants to be the King of England? The race for succession is something of a free-for-all in James Goldman’s The Lion In Winter, the first play of 2016 for the Rep. It’s an intrigue-filled, witty and dynamic historical dramatization that positively crackles with energy on stage.

The Lion In Winter is perhaps best remembered for the marvelous 1968 film starring Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, and a young Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton. I had seen the movie years ago and remembered the strength of the performances, but it was so long ago that I had forgotten a lot of the details. This play, based somewhat loosely on the history of England’s King Henry II (Jeffrey King), is full of sharp dialogue, drama, and lots and lots of humor. That last part is what surprised me the most, actually.  It’s a very sharply written script with extremely well-developed characters including Henry’s estranged wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (Carol Schultz), and the latest object of his affections, Alais (Angela Janas), who grew up in Henry’s court and was betrothed to his son Richard (Grayson DeJesus) at an early age, although she is now Henry’s mistress and is being used as something of a bargaining tool in the constant machinations concerning who is actually going to inherit the throne.  There’s Richard, the eldest surviving son and the obvious candidate, as he’s a skilled soldier and charismatic leader. He’s also Eleanor’s choice to be the next king. Henry’s choice, for whatever reason, is his petulant and immature youngest son, John (Kurt Hellerich), who Henry also wants to marry Alais in Richard’s place, despite the objections of her brother Philip (Ryan Ward), the King of France, who is currently in attendance at Henry’s palace for his Christmas court. In between these two candidates stands the crafty, well-educated and duplicitous middle son, Geoffrey (Wilson Bridges), who doesn’t initially seem to want to be King very much, but as the plot develops, so do his and everyone else’s ambitions. The center of the play is the combative, contentious, and oddly still affectionate relationship between Henry and Eleanor, who despite having been imprisoned by him for years, still loves him in her way.

It’s the relationships, the incisive dialogue laced with cutting humor, and the strongly developed characterizations that make this play so intensely fascinating, and it’s a brilliant showcase for the Rep’s excellent cast. It’s easy to see in King’s boisterous, confrontational, and charming performance how his three very different sons all take after him in their own ways. Richard’s bravado, Geoffrey’s scheming wit, and John’s almost childlike sense of entitlement are all reflected in King’s vibrant portrayal. Schultz, as the proud Eleanor, matches King scene for scene, and it’s their chemistry that drives the show. Schultz also does an excellent job of portraying Eleanor’s underlying sense of loneliness and rejection without losing that stubborn determination that keeps her going. As the sons, DeJesus is memorable as the soldierly but conflicted Richard, Bridges is deliciously snide as Geoffrey, and Hellerich is convincing as the snippy, bratty youngest son John. There’s also good work from Ward as the still fairly young King of France, Philip, who harbors a secret past with Richard and strives to be taken seriously as a monarch by Henry. Janas, as Alais, is also fine as a young woman who genuinely loves Henry, but is growing increasingly weary of being used as a pawn in his schemes.

Visually, the production has an authentic look with something of a modern twist. Mathew J. Lebebvre’s costumes are appropriately detailed, with rich, regal colors and textures, while Joseph P. Tilford’s set is more suggestive than deliberately realistic. Flanked by giant statues enclosed in glass-covered pillars, the stage has somewhat of the feel of a medieval exhibit at a museum. The furniture and set pieces give the production the right historical atmosphere with a degree of artifice that works well for the tone of the play. There’s also excellent atmospheric lighting by Thomas C. Hase and sound by Rusty Wandall, with an excellent use of scene-setting music.

This is a much funnier play than I had been expecting. Perhaps I need to see the movie again, but I didn’t remember that tone from the film. As directed at the Rep by Edward Stern, the top-notch cast makes the most of every line of dialogue and every tense moment. Although it might not be entirely historically accurate, it’s a bold, fascinating dramatization that’s riveting from start to finish. It’s an intelligent, highly energetic, first-rate production.

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Grayson DeJesus, Carol Schultz Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Lion in Winter runs at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis until January 31, 2016.

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One Man, Two Guvnors
by Richard Bean
Based on The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni
With Songs by Grant Olding
Directed by Edward Stern
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
September 12, 2014

Luke Smith, Raymond McAnally Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Luke Smith, Raymond McAnally
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

One Man, Two Guvnors is funny, plain and simple.  The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis has chosen this play to start off their new season, and it has certainly made an impression.  This update of the commedia dell’arte classic The Servant of Two Masters was an award-winning hit in London and on Broadway, and it’s making its St. Louis debut at the Rep in a bold, colorful, downright hilarious production that’s sure to have audiences laughing out loud.

Taking the basic plot of its earlier source and updating the setting to early 1960’s Brighton, England, One Man, Two Guvnors features a great deal of physical comedy and a convoluted plot that doesn’t make a lot of logical sense if you think about it, but that’s kind of the point. It’s not supposed to be logical–it’s supposed to be funny, and that it certainly is.   With scenes punctuated by a Skiffle band called “The WoolfPak” (Jake Heberlie, Timothy Moore, Matthew Rudolf, Jacob Stergos), the play tells the story of Francis Henshall (Raymond McAnally), an amiable and seemingly always hungry “minder” for small-time gangster Roscoe Crabbe, who has recently died, although Francis doesn’t know that. The “Roscoe” that Francis is working for is really Roscoe’s twin sister, Rachel (Keira Keeley), who has disguised herself as her brother in order to avoid detection by the police, since she was a witness to her brother’s accidental killing by her boyfriend, Stanley Stubbers (Jack Fellowes).  Now Stanley is also on the run in Brighton, unbeknownst to Rachel. Rachel also doesn’t know that Stanley has also hired Francis to work for him while he is in Brighton. She’s also tangled up in a convenience marriage arrangement between her late brother and Pauline Clench (Karis Danish), the ditzy daughter of local gangster Charlie “The Duck” (Anthony Cochrane).  The increasingly complicated plot also involves Pauline’s true love, wannabe actor Alan (Luke Smith); and Charlie’s bookkeeper Dolly (Ruth Pferdehirt), who engages in a flirtation with Francis.  Throw in some comic situations involving trunks, doors, food and a comically bumbling elderly waiter (Evan Zes), and what you get is a non-stop laugh riot that isn’t quite as confusing as it sounds but is always very, very funny.

The casting in a show like this is very important, because it requires performers with excellent timing and strong physical comedy skills, and the Rep has assembled an ideal collection of actors. McAnally and Zes especially stand out with their outrageous slapstick moments, with McAnally at turns tripping over a chair, struggling to lift a large trunk, getting into a fist fight with himself, and more, displaying a great deal of charm and wit along the way. The equally appealing Zes, in comically exaggerated old-age makeup, engages in a series of hilarious pratfalls, especially in a food serving scene in Act 1 that’s the the highlight of this production.  With the doors, the plates, and some fish, this scene is somewhat reminiscent of Noises Off, which the Rep presented in grand fashion earlier this year. Other strong performers include Pfirdehirt as the feisty, snarky Dolly; Danish as the delightfully dim Pauline; Smith as the grandiose Alan; and Keeley and Fellows as the mixed-up lovers Rachel and Stanley. There’s also good supporting work from Cochrane as Charlie, Mel Johnson, Jr. as Charlie’s friend Lloyd, and Aaron Orion Baker in a dual role as a taxi driver and as waiter Gareth.  There’s also some audience participation and some seemingly spontaneous moments of comedy (some improvised, and some only appearing to be improvised).

In addition to the non-stop, outrageous comedy, one thing that this play gets very right is its setting. With a very 60’s-styled set by Scott C. Neale, groovy lighting effects by Kirk Bookman, and appropriately period-specific costumes by David Kay Mickelsen, this show takes the audience to England in the 1960’s with a very authentic-seeming vibe.  The Skiffle band with original 60’s-styled songs is a nice touch, as well, and more moments of comedy are added when, at various times throughout the performance, various characters take turns playing an array of instruments with the band.  The band even starts off the show with a mini-concert that’s made to look like a period TV appearance. All of this atmosphere provides a great backdrop to the increasingly hilarious antics of the characters.

One Man, Two Guvnors may not be the funniest play I’ve ever seen, but it’s definitely in the ballpark.   The audience on opening night was certainly appreciative, but I was surprised that there were a few empty seats, even though it was a good crowd.  A show as inventive and sidesplittingly funny as this deserves to play for packed houses. If you’re wondering whether or not you should see it, take my word for it: you should! It’s a very fun show, and it provides a great start for the Rep’s 2014-2015 season.

Raymond McAnally, Ruth Pferdehirt Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Raymond McAnally, Ruth Pferdehirt
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

 

 

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