Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The story is set in 1183 at Henry's French castle on land conquered by the English. Locked up for ten years, Eleanor has been let out of her "jail" for the Christmas holiday, and her arrival sets in motion a non-stop series of plotting, scheming, betrayal, and deal making. Henry wants their youngest John, his favorite, on the throne while Eleanor prefers their oldest, Richard. Stuck in the middle is Geoffrey, whom neither wants. Also, Henry hopes to find a way to marry off his mistress Alais to one of the boys while still keeping her in his bed. Alais' half-brother Philip, the king of France, is also a guest there to negotiate over troops and lands, which only adds to this calculating game of high stakes chess with the throne going to the victor and where the players always have to be one step ahead of their opponent.
Under Janis Webb's smart direction, Jeff Davey and Ami Porter are exceptional as Henry and Eleanor. They both instill their characters with an abundance of nuance and layers, which adds to the realism of the piece, and skillfully navigate their way around Goldman's crisp dialogue and the many plot twists and turns. They also both create characters who relish their ability to manipulate their children and each other. While on the surface we are told that there is no love remaining between the two, from Davey and Porter's gestures and body language, and Goldman's expert dialogue, we clearly see there is still affection and devotion, even if their moods and actions don't always say so. There isn't a wrong acting choice or bad decision in either performance.
As the three bickering and backstabbing brothers who Henry says are "vain, conceited, weak and cowardly," James Olsen, Sergio Noriega, and Jayden Nguyen are good and they all create unique individuals, though they don't fare quite as well as Davey and Porter, due to a few small shortcomings in some of their performances. Olsen projects strength and is appropriately regal but also a few times a bit too subdued as Richard. Nguyen is fine as the sniveling, weak and whiny John, though at times he threatens to be a bit too broad. Noriega manages the best of the three as Geoffrey, who feels left out and unloved, but also realizes he can use that to his advantage and shift his allegiances when needed. Meaghan Katz is very good as Alais, who feels like she is a pawn in the power struggle, but also realizes that being in the middle gives her power. Kyle Webb does a fine job as her brother Philip,the calculating French king.
The set design by Jean-Paoul C. Clemente, Janis Webb, and Matt Stetler features an arched central entryway and windows as well as rich, hanging tapestries on the sides, plus a wooden table and chairs. While the play is supposed to take place in a couple of locations inside the castle, the static design does a good enough job. Rebecca Call's beautiful costumes evoke the period of the play with rich details and wise fabric choices. Diane Senffner's dialect coaching results in fairly solid English and French accents from the cast.
The Lion in Winter is an appealing drama that features strong dialogue, rich characters, and non-stop intrigue. With skillful direction and very strong lead performances by Ami Porter and Jeff Davey, Mesa Encore Theatre presents a highly entertaining and powerful production of this play that is full of history, intrigue and plenty of family drama.
Mesa Encore Theatre's The Lion in Winter, through February 17, 2019, at the MET Black Box Theatre, 933 East Main Street, Mesa AZ. Tickets can be ordered by calling 480-644-6500 or visiting mesaencoretheatre.com.
Producer: Jean-Paoul C. Clemente