Monday, April 13, 2015

The Lion in Winter

Playwright: James Goldman

Venue:  John Hand Theater, 7653 E 1st Pl, Denver, CO 80230.

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (includes 15 minute intermission).

Date of Performance:  Saturday, April 11, 2015. 

You may think that your holiday family gatherings are stressful, and, no doubt about it, they are.  That’s one good reason to see The Lion in Winter.  It will cheer you up.  Your family events are almost certainly less stressful than those of King Henry II of England.  His Christmas holiday in 1183 was dreadfully tense. Unless your family gatherings include treachery, betrayal, and a trip to the dungeon, your family holidays are much better than Henry’s.

As Eleanor of Aquitaine says to the audience, “it’s 1183, and we’re BARBARIANS.”  She didn’t have to tell us that.  We figured it out.  But saying those words drives home Goldman’s point.  They are real barbarians of the scariest sort:  barbarians with power.  

James Goldman’s 1966 script is based on actual events leading up to the 1183 Christmas disaster, but the script deviates from history into some intriguing, entertaining fiction.  Henry is trying to decide which of his three surviving sons (Richard, played by Jeff Jessmer, Thomas Jennings as Geoffrey, and Jonathan Hallowell as John) should inherit his throne.  Who knew that succession planning in a monarchy would be so difficult?

Each of the three sons wants the crown, and each would do nearly anything to get it.  John thinks it should be his because he’s Henry’s favorite.  Geoffrey is smart and charming, if somewhat unloved (and unlovable).  Richard (known to history as “Richard the Lionhearted”) is a proven warrior.  All have different qualities, but none is a fully suitable heir.

Along with the battle for the crown, Goldman throws in the scheming skirmishes between Henry (Andrew Uhlenhopp) and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Emma Messenger).  Eleanor is recently released from prison, where she served a sentence for plotting against Henry.  Whether Henry and Eleanor ever loved each other is irrelevant.  Whatever love there may have been is long gone.  Henry, for his part, has taken Alais as his mistress, despite that fact that she has been promised to his son Richard as his bride.  Not exactly the ideal father, Henry.  Perhaps that’s why he calls himself the “Master Bastard.”  

Emma Messenger (Eleanor), Andrew Uhlenhopp (Henry), Danielle Vivarttas (Alais)
Andrew Uhlenhopp is an intense guy, and his Henry is confident, blustery, and regal.  Uhlenhopp seems dialed in for every scene.  I would like to say that he takes no prisoners, but that’s not exactly true.  He locks up his sons.  All of them.  Uhlenhopp makes it clear that family does not define relationships.  Rather, the only meaningful relationship is that of an ally; anyone who is not an ally is an enemy, family members included.  Uhlenhopp’s delivery, gestures, and facial expressions leave no doubt that his Henry is as ruthless as he is regal.

Emma Messenger (Eleanor) is also ruthless, but in a subversive, covert way.  She plots against Henry, but without the testosterone fueled displays of dominance.  Messenger is deviously effective as Eleanor, playing chess with Henry while he plays a warrior in a steel cage death match.  Messenger has fully embraced her role as Eleanor; she seems at home with her and she's delighted to sow the seeds of disaster all over Henry’s plans.

The rest of the cast is also talented and effective; the three sons all turn in impressive performances.  Jeff Jessmer (Richard) has a strong presence as a warrior; none of us would mess with him lightly.  Jonathan Hallowell (John) is suitably meek, suitably naive, and a suitably pathetic sycophant (that’s a compliment).  Thomas Jennings (Geoffrey) sparkles as the smart but unloved son.  

Drew Herschboeck (Philip) cleverly smirks, rolls his eyes, and glowers when he’s listening to Henry and his family, making him the focus even when he’s not speaking.  Danielle Vivarttas (Alais) is beautiful, smart, and cunning as her situation with Henry deteriorates.  

Director Rick Bernstein is working with a wealth of onstage talent.  The pace, the blocking, and the delivery are all examples of his skilled approach to this magnificent script.  Set Designer Jeff Jessmer (doing double duty as Richard) puts the actors in a realistic 12th century castle, complete with a fireplace.  The costumes, by Lisa DeVeux, are literally fit for royalty.  DeVeux’ costumes for Eleanor are especially exquisite.  

If I could make one change to this production, I would intensify the chemistry between Henry and Alais.  While they were affectionate together, they were hardly passionate.  That, however, is a minor quibble; this is a marvelous production of a magnificent script.

The Lion in Winter is a rare treat.  It’s a 900 year old story that still rings true today.  You don’t have to know a lot of history to be completely immersed in this highly dysfunctional family story.  We all have families, and we all know some level of dysfunction. Fortunately, we don’t have to invite the royal family over for Christmas dinner this year.  Or any other year, for that matter.

Jonathan Hallowell (John), Jeff Jessmer (Richard), Emma Messenger (Eleanor),Thomas Jennings (Geoffrey)


This show, in my view is appropriate for all ages.  That said, it would have limited interest for preteens.

There is free parking (off street) at the theater.

PHOTO CREDITSFirehouse Theater Company.


This show will close on May 2, 2015.


Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, 707 15th Street, Denver, CO.  Yes, it’s a high end, high priced, special occasion steakhouse.  But at Happy Hour (M-F, 4:00-6:30 PM), you get some awesome specials for $8.00.  Prime Burger with Fries, Tenderloin Skewer Salad, Crab BLT with Zucchini Fries, Steak Sandwich with Fries, Seared Ahi Tuna, or Spicy Lobster.  Drink specials for $8.00 as well.  

Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse is about 20 minutes from the theater, weather and traffic permitting.  Metered street parking is available but difficult.  Spend $10 at a parking lot.  The Happy Hour special is still a bargain after shelling out for parking. 


Producers: Helen Hand and Jim Landis

Director:  Rick Bernstein

Assistant Director:  Lisa DeVeux

Lighting Designer:  Alexis Bond

Sound Designer:  Rick Bernstein

Set Designer:  Jeff Jesmer

Costume Designer:  Lisa DeVeux

Stage Manager:  Kevin James Rollins


Henry:  Andrew Uhlenhopp

Eleanor:  Emma Messenger

Richard:  Jeff Jessmer 

Geoffrey:  Thomas Jennings

John:  Jonathan Hallowell

Alais:  Danielle Vivarttas

Philip:  Drew Hirshboeck

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