TAMPA — James Goldman's The Lion in Winter probably has as many stylistic and psychological layers as any 20th century play.
Part comedy, part drama, Goldman's play uses 12th century history, politics and intrigue as a backdrop for what is ultimately a current and immediate examination of interpersonal and familial dynamics.
That Goldman was able to accomplish so much in one play is a wonder; that he was also able to make his play so thoroughly entertaining is close to a miracle.
It is also a challenge for a director and cast who take on such rich material, especially when so many in the audience will know the story through the magnificent 1968 film version.
All that makes the unbridled success of the current Gorilla Theatre production of The Lion in Winter all the more impressive and all the more satisfying. The play offers a rare combination of intellectual stimulation, wry wit and powerful insight. The production, directed by Nancy Cole, meets that mix head-on with elegant acting, evocative design and a strong point of view.
Cole has assembled a superb cast led by Robert Hooker as Henry II and Caroline Jett as his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Jett is mesmerizing from her very first scene, and her performance only gets better as her character grows more complex. Eleanor, whom Henry imprisoned after she led their three sons in war against him, is at times resolute and authoritative and at times resigned and frail. Jett makes those aspects seem like coherent elements of a complicated character rather than contradictions.
Henry II was the most powerful man in Europe in the 12th century, and Hooker embodies him with force and charisma. Joe Winskeye is another standout as Henry and Eleanor's son Richard (who would later become Richard the Lionheart). A couple of the other performances are just a notch less effective, but as a whole the seven-person cast is magnetic.
The sets and lighting by Eric Haak and Megan Byrne, and gorgeous costumes by Jen Cunningham, add immeasurable flavor to the production.
The plot revolves around Henry, who rules England and most of France, choosing an heir and dividing up his holdings among his sons, and the sons' conniving and scheming to gain power.
Goldman wrote the script to be performed with American accents and with modern-sounding wordplay because he wanted it to feel contemporary.
Marty Clear is a Tampa freelance writer who specializes in performing arts. He can be reached at email@example.com.