Guthrie's 'The Lion in Winter' revels in a royal holiday mess

Heidi Bohnenkamp

Heidi Bohnenkamp

It’s easy to describe The Lion in Winter in terms of TV dramas: It has the setting of Game of Thrones, the inheritance battle of Empire, and the fast-paced verbal gymnastics of Gilmore Girls.

The Lion in Winter

Guthrie Theater
$34-$67; $15-$49 previews.

Set designers Christopher Ash and the Tony-winning Beowulf Boritt have created a stunning installation for the Guthrie’s production of James Goldman’s 1966 play about one of the least relaxing Christmas breaks in history. With lavish costumes by Karen Perry, a percussive soundscape by Amadon Jaeger, and dynamic lighting by Clifton Taylor, this Lion is a wonder to behold.

A four-ton timber tower, topped with 254 LED candles, rotates in place on the McGuire Proscenium Stage as King Henry II (Kevyn Morrow) and his feuding family members chase each other through a spiraling series of rooms. To emphasize the isolation of this frigid fraternity, snow falls into drifts that pile up around the tower.

Welcome to English-ruled territory in France, circa 1183. The king of France (David Pegram) has come to demand that Henry make good on a promise to unite the empires by wedding French princess Alais (Thallis Santesteban, bitterly independent) to Henry’s heir.

That presents multiple problems for Henry. For one thing, he and his wife, Eleanor (Laila Robins), don’t agree on whether the next king should be brave Richard (Torsten Johnson), clever Geoffrey (Michael Hanna), or Henry’s personal favorite, young John (Riley O’Toole). For another thing, Henry is himself smitten with Alais, and the two are openly lovers.

In true Festivus spirit, the family members commence to air their grievances: who lied, who cheated, who Mother loved best.

Moriarty’s production emphasizes the farcical absurdity of the situation, getting big laughs with behind-the-tapestry shenanigans and dryly despairing one-liners. Too often, though, the cast members gallop through their exchanges rather than taking time to chew on Goldman’s acidic dialogue. Much of the characterization feels told, not shown, and the show never fully lives up to the promise of its eye-popping production design.

Still, there’s a lot to admire here. Pegram is a standout as a teenage monarch who relishes, with an almost eerie dignity, the advantage of his youth. Hanna makes a strong impression, giving the indignant Geoffrey the makings of a classic villain. Morrow and Robins have a nicely resigned rapport, though neither summons the authority to truly command the stage.

While the cast spend most of the show scattered throughout the tower’s expanse, the conclusion brings them all together in a wine-cellar-turned-dungeon. The subterranean reservoir becomes the venue for a session of long-delayed family therapy — with swords, of course. When it came to backstabbing, medieval monarchs had no time for metaphors.

The Lion in Winter
Guthrie Theater
818 S. Second St., Minneapolis
1-877-44-STAGE; through December 31