Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

The Lion in Winter

Adobe Theater
Review by Dean Yannias

Also see Dean's reviews of It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol

Peter Shea Kierst, Debi Kierst, and Tim Riley
Photo by Ronda Lewis
It may be surprising to learn that the author of The Lion in Winter, which seems to be a very British play, was actually an American. James Goldman (brother of the more prolific William Goldman) was born and raised in the Chicago area. This makes the play a hybrid of sorts. Goldman took an American couple, George and Martha from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, plunked them down in a Shakespeare history play, and ended up with a vigorous and accessible bit of historical fiction.

A lot of people of a certain age have seen the 1968 movie based on the play, with Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn, but that was a long time ago. I remember so little of it that seeing this play was in effect seeing the story for the first time. I had forgotten how lively the script is and how captivating the characters are.

As with many of the Shakespeare histories, it helps if you have a little foreknowledge of who these people were and when they lived. The future King Henry II of England married Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152 when he was still in his teens, thus taking control of about a third of France, which was her dowry. They had eight children, five of them boys. The two oldest boys died while Henry was still king, leaving three potential heirs to the throne. The play revolves around which of the three sons Henry will choose to succeed him, and which one Eleanor wants. She had earlier plotted with her second son to overthrow Henry, and when the treason failed, Henry had her locked up in a castle from 1173 until his death in 1189.

Goldman fabricated a fictitious meeting between Henry and Eleanor set in 1183, when Henry lets her out briefly for the Christmas holiday. He wants to settle the matter of succession. He has learned from the legend of King Lear that unless only one person inherits the entire kingdom, there will be civil war. He wants John, his youngest son. She wants Richard the Lionheart, the oldest remaining son. There's also Geoffrey, but nobody wants him. They all get together for a family "celebration" at the castle in Chinon, France. Also joining the party are Alais, Henry's young mistress, who has been engaged since age 8 to Richard; and Alais's half-brother Philip, who is now king of France and who has a secret history of his own with Richard. As you can imagine, things don't go so well, but it makes for a smashing good time at the theater.

You would expect heavy drama from this combative group, but for the most part, the play is a comedy. I couldn't keep up with who is telling the truth and who is lying and who is scheming with whom, but it almost doesn't matter. The dialogue is so well written and witty that the play is a delight, not a downer. That's not to say that there aren't some serious, almost tragic, moments, but the overall tone is light, not dark.

It's an impressive piece of writing and it's staged very well at Adobe Theater by director Nancy Sellin and her crew. It moves apace but not hectically, and Petifoger has designed an impressive turntable set that allows for quick changes of scenes. The costumes by Rhonda Backinoff and props by Nina Dorrance contribute nicely to the ambiance.

The stars of the show are Albuquerque theater's power couple, Peter Shea Kierst and Debi Kierst. Everything I've seen either one of them do individually on stage has been perfect, and when they get to spar with each other in this play, it's exhilarating. Hepburn and O'Toole fans may beg to differ, but I'm pretty sure that the acting here is just as good as in the movie. I don't think that even Kate could quiver her lower lip more effectively than Debi does here.

The supporting cast is excellent as well. Tim Riley pretty much scowls throughout the whole show as Richard, but nobody's better at scowling than he is. Josh Blanchard is fun to watch as the frustrated Geoffrey, and his accent is much more stable than it was in a recent Dylan Thomas play. Owen Dana Martin plays the confused teenager John well. Victoria Hughes and Austin Embree both do good work as the French half-siblings.

I say this in a lot of reviews, but it applies here especially: Just because you've seen the movie doesn't mean that you should skip seeing the play. For me, there's nothing quite as exciting as sitting a few feet away from some really good actors delivering a really good script, and that's what happens in this show.

The Lion in Winter, through December 23, 2018, at the Adobe Theater, 9813 4th Street NW, Albuquerque NM. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2:00, with an extra performance to benefit the cast on Thursday, December 13 at 7:30. Tickets are $17 to $20. For tickets and information, visit