Original dysfunction

by Mary Cusack

Historical drama makes royal family drama as accessible as reality TV

Trust no one. In an environment shaped by conspiracy, fear and greed, it seems like terrific advice. Williamston Theatre’s production of “The Lion in Review Winter” shows how desperate and lonely life is when one can truly trust no other, including spouses, lovers and offspring.

The script is an imagined behind-the-scenes peek at the court of Henry II of England (John Manfredi) as he brings his family together for Christmas in 1183. Henry knows that his reign is near an end and hopes to settle the question of succession in peace and quiet.

Joining him is his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Sandra Birch), who has been imprisoned by Henry for 10 years, but occasionally trotted out for public events and celebrations.

In her absence, his bed was kept warm by Alais (Katie Maggart), a French princess and Eleanor’s former ward. Alais had been sent to the family as a child to be raised and eventually to be married to Henry and Eleanor’s son, Richard (Andrew Buck). But she only has eyes for Henry. He and Eleanor, however, use her as a pawn in their wicked games, alternately promising her to Richard and their youngest son, John (Michael Barbour).

Add to the mix young King Phillip of France (Blaine Mizer). Seductively smarmy and effeminate, he is at first an observer to the games, but soon he’s deliciously playing along. Finally, there’s Geoffrey (Andrew Head), the classic middle child who’s doubtlessly the smartest of the brood, but doomed to be ignored.

Audiences who avoid period pieces for fear of inaccessible language will be pleasantly surprised by the contemporary and witty dialogue. James Goldman’s script is even more contemporary now than when he wrote it in 1966, due in large part to the modern obsession with reality television. The story is the original dysfunctional family feud, and dysfunction, families, and/or feuding are the backbone of successful reality shows.

The action is almost entirely verbal, but with a smart script and this skilled cast, the experience is like watching a sevenway tennis match. It is not necessary to keep up with alliances and betrayals; the thrill is in watching the serves, volleys and unforced errors.

The gamesmanship is spellbinding, but the play becomes absolutely riveting when Henry and Eleanor play singles. To borrow a classical reference from the script, Manfredi and Birch chew more scenery than Medea chews children.

There is the occasional genuine feeling, as when Eleanor despondently declares, “Oh my piglets, we are the origins of war … we could have changed the world.” Yet a moment later, sensing she still has a move, she launches into the fray with daggers drawn. The only sure thing to trust in is that the game will continue until only one is left standing.

“The Lion in Winter”

Williamston Theatre Through February 23 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 3 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays $20 Thursdays/$25 Friday- Saturday evenings/$22 matinees/$10 students/ seniors $2 discount 122 S. Putnam St, Williamston

(517) 655-SHOW wiliamstontheatre.com

‘Til death do they part

by Paul Wozniak

Small moments make a big impact in Peppermint Creek’s ‘Big Love’

“Big Love,” per its title, is big; conceptually, thematically, physically and sonically. But Peppermint Creek Theatre Co.’s most effective moments are small, from wry one-liners to subtly raised eyebrows. For director Lynn Lammers and the cast, the biggest challenge is making the big resonate with audiences as much as the small does.

Contextually, Charles Mee’s script is meant to be enormous (albeit with a condensed cast of 11). The story of 50 runaway brides seeking asylum from their future owners … er, husbands … was adapted from the Ancient Greek play “The Suppliants,” written by Aeschylus. The Greeks would have performed in an outdoor arena with masks the size of opened pizza boxes doubling as megaphones. In this production, the actors sing songs such as “You Don’t Own Me” while smashing wrapped wedding presents on the stage. But actors also smash their bodies on the stage, punctuating entire scenes with aerobic intensity.

Mee updates setting and dialogue, pierced with universal sentiments such as “true love has no conditions; that’s why it’s so awful to fall in love.” Characters grandstand with heady monologues ranging from societal pressures to gender inequalities along with additional moral quandaries. Mee offers no easy answers. By giving each side a moment of honest disclosure, Mee complicates his characters enough to avoid quick labels of “good” or “evil.” But the politically charged rants that dominate the dialogue are difficult for audiences to receive as they are for actors to deliver.

As the most outspoken of the brides, Thyona (Amy Winchell) is given the bulk of the righteous sermonizing. Winchell definitely has the chops to deliver backto-back intense monologues demonizing Adam and praising Eve, but her finest moment is the scorching insults she delivers to her sisters. The main recipient of those insults is Olympia, played by Amanda Harvey. Unlike Thyona, Olympia is the daft youngling who speaks in rambling non-sequiturs. Harvey’s comic timing is masterful and a welcome encounter to the play’s serious side. Meghan Malusek plays Lydia, the third bride. Malusek works wonderfully between Winchell and Harvey while displaying realistic chemistry with her suitor, Nikos (Brennan Hattaway).

Keenan Kangas plays the dominant suitor, Constantine, the perfect headstrong match to Thyona. Kangas struggles to make Constantine feel authentic, but seems to make a real connection during his especially physical monologue. Zach Neithercut plays the final suitor Oed (pronounced “Ed”), bringing a spark to an especially small role.

The two strongest performances come from Blake Bown (Piero, the host of the home where the brides seek refuge) and Shannon Bowen (Eleanor, one of the guests). Piero treads a fine political line between two principled sides. His dialogue may be sharp, but his performance — seasoned with dry delivery, deadpan stares and wicked smiles — absolutely kills. Shannon Bowen brings a bubbly exuberance to Eleanor’s dippy persona that draws the biggest laughs in the most inappropriate ways.

Despite its crisp 90-minute runtime, “Big Love” lumbers due to unevenness. For all the pithy remarks and quotable truths, there’s heavy-handed lecturing delivered with all the subtly of a sledgehammer. Provided they’re still relating after the impact, audiences will leave with plenty to discuss.

“Big Love”

Peppermint Creek Theatre Co. 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 6-8 $15/$10 students and seniors 6025 Curry Lane, Lansing (517) 927-3016 peppermintcreek.org