Review: 'The Lion in Winter' Roars to Life in Psych Drama Company's Production

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Sunday June 12, 2022

Wedy Lippe and Zachary D. McConnell in Psych Drama Company's production of 'The Lion in Winter'
Wedy Lippe and Zachary D. McConnell in Psych Drama Company's production of 'The Lion in Winter'  (Source:William Stofega)

Despite a two-year delay caused by COVID — a delay that was cleverly worked around, in the interim, with an audio presentation — Psych Drama Company brings to the stage its vision for James Goldman's ferocious 1966 play "The Lion in Winter." The wait has been worth it, and the audio drama has helped the production ripen; this presentation is as crisp and juicy as a Kanzi apple.

The action is set in a castle at Christmastime in 1183. King Henry II (Brian Dion) has gathered the entire royal family together for the holiday, including his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Wendy Lippe), whom he has imprisoned for the past decade for having taken her son's side in a campaign to topple him.

You thought the theatrics in the modern royal family were a real life drama? Goldman's play is based on actual historical facts (even though the dialogue and holiday gathering depicted in the play are fictitious). After having to claw his way to the throne, Henry II attempted to preserve his empire by anointing his son — also called Henry — as his successor even during his lifetime. What followed was civil strife. Now, with Henry the Younger dead, the king must decide on a new successor, and his three surviving sons are all determined to wear the crown.

Caitlin Cremins and Brian Dion
Caitlin Cremins and Brian Dion  (Source: William Stofega)

King Henry II doesn't just expect that his boys will struggle and scheme to win the prize; he welcomes and applauds their ambition. His pick for the throne is youngest son (Michal Mazzone), in spite of his being the dimmest of dim bulbs and a spoiled, self-centered brat besides. Eleanor favors Richard (Richie de Jesus) —†known as the Lionheart — whose skill and success in battle rival the accomplishments of his father. Henry and Eleanor are each as determined as their sons are to see things go their way, while the third son, Jeffrey (Zachary D. McConnell), is excluded from his parents' schemes and negotiations, even though he is by far the most clever of the three young men. That being the case, Jeffrey is more than capable of creating his own plots and alliances.

Adding still more friction to the mix are two more characters who are on hand for the Yuletide revelries: King Philip II of France (to whose father, Louis VII, Eleanor used to be married — a union that was strategically annulled in 1152 after she failed to produce any sons for Louis) is visiting, just in time to take part in the family's dizzying roundelay of plots and counter-plots. Philip is played by Norman Dubois.) Philip's older half-sister, Princess Alais (Caitlin Cremins) rounds things out: She's to be the wife of England's next king... unless, of course, Henry II marries her himself.

The battle of wits and wills is titanic, and the play's writing is razor-sharp, as these royal scorpions rattle around in their bucket, seeking advantage and drawing up brutal plans against one another despite (and perhaps because of) their deep bonds of affection —†bonds that are especially strong and complicated between Henry II and Eleanor. Every scene is electric with impending betrayal, and reversals are par for the course.

The play is an epic for the stage, demanding a strong and able cast together with skilled and crystal-clear direction, and co-directors Lippe and Larry Segel meet its many challenges with an inventive twist. The production is set up as an immersive experience, with clusters of audience seating arrayed around specific spots that belong to the different characters. At moments, the dialogue is delivered in knowing asides to the audience —†moments that play more like internal monologues than breaking of the fourth wall (though that would not be out of place, either, given the play's deliberate anachronisms).

Michael Mazzone (foreground) and Zachary D. McConnell
Michael Mazzone (foreground) and Zachary D. McConnell  (Source: William Stofega)

Lippe and Segel also split many of the technical duties between themselves. The staging is Lippe's idea, while Segel tackles the technical and lighting design, conjuring castle walls from tapestries and shadows, with large electric candelabras flickering away, their orange electric bulbs mimicking candle flames. A red spotlight serves as a literal hotspot — a place into which characters drift in their most intense, emotionally honest moments. The ruddy color of the spotlight confirms the heat of the characters' blood, as well as the plausible expectation that the Gordian knot of their conflicting, constricting demands can only ever be cut with a strong arm and a sword.

Segel also shares sound design tasks with Doug Greene and James Wlodyka (never has the iron clang of a dungeon door sounded more authoritative), while Lippe and Amanda Allen handle the costuming —†everything from period-specific dresses for the women and tunics for the men to night shifts in the intimate (though hardly cozy) bedchambers that Eleanor and Alais share.

Mazzone's John is the very embodiment of immature entitlement (sometimes to the point of self-parody); McConnell's Geoffrey is as sharp and cold as a dagger, and thirsty enough for power, and vengeance, that it hangs in the air around him. DeJesus as Richard and Dubois as Philip bring to life a steamy, homoerotic history between their characters. Cremins isn't given as much to do as the others, but she makes the most of her role.

Still, it all comes down to Lippe and Dion, and the two are transfixing. Dion's voice can be crashingly loud, but he doesn't need volume to exert his formidable stage presence, and his roar is far less chilling than his chuckle. Lippe's Eleanor is absolutely in charge, until she's not; Henry's maneuvers box her in and Jeffrey has her almost literally on the strings he's pulling, but even then she's quick to recognize opportunities and seize potential victory time after time from near-certain defeat. Hers is the play's mot amusing anachronism-slash-fourth wall breaking moment, and the play's most self-aware comment, when she notes, "We've all got knives. It's 1183, and we're barbarians."

Indeed. It's 2022, and this timeless stage classic might be the most politically contemporary, unfailingly observant play of the moment. Psych Drama Company knows what it has in this work, and makes the most of it.

"The Lion in Winter" runs through June 19 and is hosted by The Theater Company of Saugus For tickets and more information, follow this link.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.