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The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

At the Court Theatre, “The Lion in Winter” is Compelling, but Unimaginative

Arts Editor Nora Schultz reviews Court Theatre’s production of “The Lion in Winter.”
In+The+Lion+in+Winter%2C+Henry+%28John+Hoogenakker%29+and+Eleanor+%28Rebecca+Spense%29+negotiate+while+their+youngest+son+and+Henry%E2%80%99s+mistress+look+on.
Michael Brosilow
In “The Lion in Winter,” Henry (John Hoogenakker) and Eleanor (Rebecca Spense) negotiate while their youngest son and Henry’s mistress look on.

The Lion in Winter lends itself easily to comparison—to Shakespeare’s King Lear, to hit television dramedy Succession, to any number of popular narratives that present us with an aging, infirm patriarch and a host of underwhelming potential heirs vying for their father’s approval. James Goldman’s classic 1966 play is fully aware of the fact that it covers well-trod ground and doesn’t shy away from making its own Lear comparisons.

The beauty of the text, however, lies in what it accomplishes within this awareness of the fact that there is nothing truly new under the sun. It does not seek to radically alter our understandings of power, family, or history, but rather to hold our understandings up to the light and see how they fare when placed in such absurd circumstances. While much of the original text’s beauty shines through in Ron OJ Parson’s current production at Court Theatre, rather sparse staging and underwhelming direction and design add little to such a deft, sleek script.

It’s Christmas, 1183; our aging patriarch is King Henry II. John Hoogenakker’s Henry II is convincingly charismatic, but perhaps just a bit too affable to ever be quite as frightening as the role occasionally demands. You have your incompetent yet laughably ambitious heirs, the aggressively confident Richard Lionheart (Shane Kenyon), the duplicitous and selfish Geoffrey (Brandon Miller) and the immature, easily duped John (Kenneth La’Ron Hamilton). Hamilton shines in particular, fully embodying the childishness of the aggrieved teenage prince, but Kenyon and Miller both come across as distractingly old for characters apparently in their early twenties. (Kenyon in particular plays his role with a sort of mature, naturalistic bluntness that feels out of place next to his co-stars’ wink-wink theatricality). The Lion in Winter’s greatest addition to the Lear-esque formula is the inclusion of disempowered yet fiercely resistant Queen Eleanor, played here by Rebecca Spence, who seems to be directly channeling Katharine Hepburn’s 1968 film performance, though not without adding her own personal touches.

Though on the whole the performances adequately bring Goldman’s well-known script to life, a rather bland combination of design decisions does not bring much more to the table. The set transforms back and forth between two “modes,” one where the full stage is brightly lit and well utilized by the actors and another more intimate setting, where the action is confined downstage and lit by faux candlelight. These scenes largely involve the same set of characters, making the distinction between the more “public” and “private” setting vague and perfunctory. The cream-colored Romanesque arches of the backdrop evoke “medieval” in the way that an Olive Garden evokes “Italian.”

While the costumes serviceably communicated the 12th-century setting, and the decision to assign each of the members of the seven-person cast a different color of the rainbow allowed for a fun moment of realization once everyone appeared onstage together, the lack of stylized detail contributed to an overall impression of “playing it straight.” This is not always a bad idea, but frequently one that results in somewhat forgettable productions. See The Lion in Winter to appreciate an adroit script that still garners laughs and chills alike almost sixty years after its Broadway premiere, but look elsewhere for innovation in staging, direction, and design.

James Goldman’s “The Lion in Winter” is playing at the Court Theatre through December 3.

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