Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

The Lion in Winter
Court Theatre
Review by Christine Malcom

Rebecca Spence
and John Hoogenakker

Photo by Michael Brosilow
Court Theatre has opened its season with James Goldman's The Lion in Winter, and under the direction of Resident Artist Ron OJ Parson, what a fierce, funny, passionate opening it is.

The design of the production is, on the surface, nothing special, which is to say that it is subtle, skillful, and wisely crafted to keep the focus on the actors. With great simplicity, Linda Buchanan's scenic design captures all the cavernous places one might be lonely in Henry's castle at Chinon.

With just a few set pieces tracked in from the wings and a handful of furniture pieces transforming the downstage area into something more intimate, Buchanan captures the grand scale on which the Plantagenets live and entertain without sacrificing pacing to lengthy scene changes. Jared Gooding's lighting design makes excellent use of the vast expanses of gray stone, effecting an impressive transformation into the dungeon for the play's climax.

Christine Pascual's costumes succeed in a similar vein. She establishes a deep burgundy as Eleanor's color early on, while Alais is associated with lilac. Later, however, when the two women share an intimate scene in the bedroom that belongs to the two of them equally, Alais wears a simple white shift and Eleanor a lilac robe. The color scheme not only transports the two back to Alais's childhood and the possibility for tenderness between them, it visually communicates the vicious cycle they're locked in.

The sound design and composition by Christopher Kriz are, perhaps, slightly less consistent than the other design aspects. The pre-show and intermission music is certainly spot on. Its driving though slightly irregular rhythms have a destabilizing effect that serves a story with such a high betrayals-per-minute rate. However, the music that is occasionally woven into the scenes themselves does not seem to be guided by intentions that are always clear to the audience.

John Hoogenakker and Rebecca Spence are nothing short of outstanding as Henry and Eleanor. Each has a distinct and precise mastery of Goldman's language. Hoogenakker's rough and weary approach meets Spence's cool and glittering style in an appropriately turbulent fashion. Moreover, there is no simple dwelling on the surface for either actor. The hatred, regret, viciousness, and deep, dark love between them constantly roils beneath the surface of the barbs they trade with exquisite timing.

Spence and Netta Walker (Alais) work together so well that they very nearly steal the entire play for its outnumbered women. Walker's self-possession and the intelligence she projects invite the audience to embrace the complexity of how she and Eleanor feel about one another, and she more than capably handles the character's passion, ambition, and frustration with her status as the only pawn among the kings, queens, knights and bishops.

Shane Kenyon (Richard), Kenneth La'Ron Hamilton (John), and Brandon Miller (Geoffrey) develop a dynamic among the would-be kings that elevates each of the three roles. As much of a pleasure as it is to witness Goldman's dialogue executed beautifully by individuals, there is a certain danger that the sons' scenes devolve into stagey monologues. Here, however, the actors' distinct physicality and deep awareness of one another communicates the rich familial and political subtext that is constantly on the characters' minds.

As Philip, Anthony Baldasare occasionally leans a bit too heavily into the snap of the dialogue, seemingly emphasizing the lightning pace of the character's exchanges and not always finding the nuance that his castmates manage to excavate more consistently. But these moments amount to minor blips, and Baldasare succeeds in emotional builds in the performance overall.

The Lion in Winter runs through December 3, 2023, at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Avenue, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit or call 773-753-4472.