In describing "The Lion in Winter," the program notes for Golden West College's production loosely refer to "Dynasty" as something of an analogy. It's a point well made: This "Lion" is pure medieval soap opera, less an English history lesson than a hysteria lesson.
Yes, Joan Collins would feel rather cozy in director Stewart Rogers' spicy reworking of James Goldman's comedy-drama of family intrigue in the court of King Henry II. The setting may be 12th-Century England, but in Rogers' hands, the attitude is straight out of prime time 1987.
Does it work? Well, that's ultimately a question of taste. Anyone who likes it broad and doesn't need much subtlety will undoubtedly find this "Lion" a hoot. But those who expect less Lizzie and more Elizabeth in their English theater may be disappointed.
"Lion" is history, but only of the most revisionist sort. Richard the Lion-Hearted, fresh from bloody victories abroad, returns to find his two brothers plotting to usurp their father's throne. He, naturally, joins the party, accompanied by his mother, Queen Eleanor, the grand dame of nastiness.
King Henry tries to outguess his devious progeny in a helter-skelter tangle of manipulation. Watching these folks go at it can be fun--a little like watching a family spat at the dinner table that, fortunately, doesn't include you.
Rogers lets everyone go at it tooth and nail. There's much (sometimes too much) physicality here: Eyebrows raise wildly on almost every other line, heads are tossed back ceremoniously and there's plenty of pacing. The actresses flounce a lot; the actors frown a lot.
Although it all seems like a game of one-upmanship sometimes, nobody can really compete with Nancy Douglas, who has apparently been studying TV's saltiest queens (especially Joan Collins) for inspiration. Her Eleanor is a sneering, sniping serpent who knows that a sharp knife can be used for more than cutting the evening's venison. It's a surprising, even amusing characterization, but, unfortunately, it wears thin after a while.
There's more depth to Marc Whitmore's portrayal of King Henry, but as most of his scenes are with the flamboyant Eleanor, his character often seems wooden, even boring, by comparison. Perhaps the trouble is in Whitmore's delivery--almost every line seems to end on a tone of resignation. Whitmore's king has majesty but not enough style.
Whitmore also shares several scenes with Lisa Smith as Alais, the king's French consort. Smith serves up a pouty, vulnerable and scheming dish who sincerely loves her man but is not against protecting her own interests. I'm not sure whether Smith's accent is altogether British, but it is singsongy and a pleasure for listeners.
There is, by the way, a problem with accents throughout. They appear to be optional: Some use them, others don't. It's not a glaring inconsistency, but it does make this college production seem, well, collegiate.
The set (a group effort) is more than competent, as are the costumes (another group effort). The stage is ringed with a gloomy brick facade that, along with Charles P. Davis' moody lighting, conveys a sense of being deep inside the bowels of a castle.
The costumes appear to represent the period accurately--as long as you don't look at the feet. Many of the actors wear black Kung Fu slippers rather than something more authentic. Oh, well.
"The Lion in Winter" continues through Sunday at the Actor's Playbox at Golden West College, 15744 Golden West St., Huntington Beach. Information: (714) 895-8378.