The Alternative Repertory Theatre in Santa Ana has done surprising justice to the monumental family squabble of "The Lion in Winter." Part history, part comedy and all soap opera, James Goldman's play about a night at Chinon castle--where Henry II, the first Plantagenet king, is holding court--gets the histrionic treatment it deserves from a respectable amateur cast.
Ever since its original 1966 Broadway production, "Lion" has been a vehicle for virtuoso performances. But it was the 1968 screen version with Peter O'Toole as Henry (the raging lion in his lair) and Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine (the castoff queen who would like to skin him alive) that spread the gospel of this play. They turned it into one of Hollywood's all-time scenery-chewing contests, which made it popular as a road test for breast-beating players everywhere.
Although the production cannot avoid the play's inevitable affectation, it is persuasively entertaining just the same. In fact, "Lion in Winter" represents a significant advance for this storefront theater company inasmuch as it has fielded two very capable leads--Jeff R. W. Stevens as Henry and Barbara Sorenson as Eleanor--as well as supporting players who fill out sizable roles with performances that work to advantage, even when they are not always creditable.
The production, dressed in fur-draped burlap and leather to suggest a medieval setting, conveys the impression of relative spaciousness by sacrificing a few seats in the tiny house and wisely going to a three-quarter round presentation. Consequently, artistic director Patricia L. Terry's staging has a certain amplitude.
There are moments when Sorenson's well-spoken portrayal of Eleanor evokes eerie echoes of Hepburn. But, on the whole, Sorenson makes the role her own with an irony that remains her buoyant keynote throughout. Stevens, who gives a more earnest performance, succeeds by avoiding comparison with O'Toole. He also matches Sorenson's elevated speech and witty ripostes with high-toned polish, although he makes one entrance with a peculiar "Hi ya!"
The royal imbroglio of "Lion in Winter" takes place on Christmas Eve in 1183. It revolves around shifting family alliances in a scramble for Henry's crown and the large domains he has consolidated through war and marriage. Now 51 and mindful of his age, Henry wants eventually to pass the crown to John, the youngest of his and Eleanor's three living sons.
But neither Eleanor, who is kept prisoner by Henry (because of the revolts she had led), nor their two other sons, Richard and Geoffrey, like Henry's idea of succession.
And that's only the beginning.
Andrew Singleton is somewhat awkward as Richard, but that fits the character; Ted Escobar's staginess works for Geoffrey in spite of itself. Glenn Meek is less successful as John, though he gains our sympathy for playing such a sloppy ingrate. Anne James carries off the role of Henry's mistress, Alais, without trying for ingenue charm. And Keith Wolfe is sufficiently insolent as Philip, the teen-age king of France.
What: James Goldman's "The Lion in Winter."
When: Through March 16. Performances Thursdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 7 p.m.
Where: The Alternative Repertory Theatre, 1636 S. Grand Ave., Santa Ana.
Whereabouts: Near the corner of Edinger Avenue. Take Costa Mesa Freeway to Edinger exit and go north.
Wherewithal: $10 to $12.50.
Where to call: (714) 836-7929.