Just about every summer, I make the white-knuckle drive over Highway 17 to catch a production or two by Shakespeare Santa Cruz, which calls the University of Santa Cruz's Theater Arts Mainstage and an adjacent wooded glen home. This year, three plays are luring audiences: William Shakespeare's Love's Labors Lost, which opened July 24, 2010, and Othello, which opens August 6, as well as James Goldman's The Lion in Winter, which opened July 23. All three plays run in repertory through August 29, 2010.
Recently, I attended the second non-preview performance of The Lion in Winter on a lazy Sunday afternoon to an enthusiastic, if modest, house. With handsome sets by John Iacovelli and crisp direction by Richard E.T. White, the 1966 play (Peter O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn starred in the 1968 film) tells the story of a colossally dysfunctional family, modeled after that of King Henry II and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who, as the play opens, Henry has imprisoned for a decade.
When we meet 50-year-old Henry (Shakespeare Santa Cruz's artistic director, Marco Barricelli, making his SSC debut), he's frolicking in bed with 23-year-old Alais Capet (Mairin Lee), who Henry has raised as a daughter since she was seven -- he's been having an affair with her since she was 16. Alais is destined to marry whichever one of Henry's sons is named his heir, which the blustery Henry sees as the smallest of impedances to their continued romantic relationship. Besides, he quips, being Queen of England will not be without some benefits.
The Lion in Winter is filled with such casual, comical asides in the face of absurd and fraught circumstances, which means we seesaw from laughing out loud at the clever wordplay to being stunned by the seemingly limitless ability of the characters to contrive new and interesting ways to stab each other in the back.
Barricelli fully inhabits Henry, growling and snarling his way through the play in a manner that feels authentic to Goldman's conniving character. Kandis Chappell as Eleanor, who has been released from prison for the Christmas holiday, is every bit Barricelli's match. While Henry's weapons are his raw might and a mind that would make Machiavelli reel, Eleanor uses her tongue to seduce her prey, be they her estranged husband, his young lover, or her and Henry's three sons, each of whom would just as soon slit the other's throat if it would secure him England's crown. The kids, you might say, have some serious parental issues.
What's brilliant about the play, besides Goldman's wonderful writing in which the level of palace intrigue and gamesmanship is upped and upped again, is the decision to personalize these royal louts, to make their lack of humanity, well, human. Goldman could have easily focused the blame for their avarice and megalomania on circumstances, the traps of nobility, and even history itself. Instead, he has Eleanor proclaim to her sons, whom she calls "piglets," that "we are the origins of war." Of course, she's manipulating her dear boys, but it's a telling line nonetheless. In this way, and many others, Goldman's smart chess match of a play feels right at home in a theater company that takes Shakespeare's name for part of its own.
The Shakespeare Santa Cruz production of The Lion in Winter runs through August 29, 2010 in the Theater Arts Mainstage at the University of Santa Cruz. For tickets and information, visit shakespearesantacruz.org.