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On Theater: A roaring ‘Lion’ in Laguna

The Lion in Winter
Frances Fisher, Gregory Harrison and Chelsea Kurtz star in the Laguna Playhouse production of “The Lion in Winter,” which is playing at the Laguna Playhouse through Nov. 24.
(Ed Krieger)

The first time local theatergoers were exposed to “The Lion in Winter” was over half a century ago at the old Laguna Playhouse, in a stellar production with Ralph Richmond and Marthella Randall under the direction of John Ferzacca.

James Goldman’s historical drama has surfaced several times locally since then, most recently a few months ago at Santa Ana’s Attic Theater. Now it’s back at the Laguna Playhouse in a powerful production headlined by veteran stage and screen actors.

The “lion,” England’s King Henry II, has plenty to roar about in this 12th-century opus. He covets a young prospective bride but can’t seem to shake his present wife, Queen Eleanor, even though he’s cast her into a dungeon, releasing her only on special occasions.

On top of that, his three sons are clashing over who’s to be his successor. It all makes for compelling confrontations of both drama and ironic comedy as the family gathers for Christmas, pondering on what to hang — the holly or each other.

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The Lion in Winter
The Laguna Playhouse production of James Goldman’s “The Lion in Winter,” is directed by Sheldon Epps and playing in Laguna Beach through Nov. 24.
(Ed Krieger)

At Laguna the role of Henry is brilliantly enacted by Gregory Harrison, playing a king outwardly secure in his own supremacy yet bedeviled by his rebellious family. Harrison enriches his character with a commanding voice and manner, shakily maintaining a fragile control.

Frances Fisher as Eleanor appears a bit uneven in the first act but springs to life with a vengeance in the second, employing both romantic and maternal skills to strengthen her bargaining position. Her regal bearing, even in a captive situation, grows stronger as the play progresses.

All three of the royal sons deliver strong performances, particularly Burt Grinstead as the eldest, Richard, known as the Lionheart and destined for a long crusade. Grinstead presents the strongest case for the crown in a steely, uncompromising enactment.

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The youngest, John, of future Magna Carta notoriety, is played by Spencer Curnutt as a spoiled, egocentric brat. Ian Littleworth deftly portrays the scheming middle son, Geoffrey, as a master manipulator with little allegiance.

The Lion in Winter
Spencer Curnutt, Ian Littleworth and Burt Grinstead play King Henry II’s three royal sons in the Laguna Playhouse production of “The Lion in Winter,” which plays in Laguna Beach through Nov. 24.
(Ed Krieger)

As the young Alais, beloved of Henry, Chelsea Kurtz gives the role more ironic bite than is usually apparent. Her brother, the youthful French king Philip, is neatly enacted by Taubert Nadalini, solid in a poignant face-off with Richard.

The drama traditionally transpires against a castle-like backdrop, but in designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s concept, it more resembles a half-finished theater set: an odd, yet effective, choice.

“The Lion in Winter” may be a theatrical antique, but like Henry it’s still a force to be reckoned with in a dynamic revival at the Laguna Playhouse.

IF YOU GO

What: “The Lion in Winter”

Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

When: Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 7:30, Sundays at 1 and 5:30 until Nov. 24

Cost: $50 to $75

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Information: (949) 497-2787; lagunaplayhouse.com

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