An aging ruler of a brutal regime is not quite ready to let loose the reins of power. Yet political and personal forces beyond his control are forcing him to examine the hard choices of succession in the face of revolt.
Sound like a story drawn from today's headlines? It is, in fact, the sketch of the plot from "The Lion in Winter" by James Goldman. The play is set in Old England in 1183, exploring the intrigue and the power behind the throne of an aging Henry II and his dysfunctional family.
Weber State University is presenting the production in a run beginning next Friday, under the direction of Tracy Callahan, associate professor of theater arts.
Said Callahan: "What makes this a lot of fun is this is a period piece with a contemporary feel. It is great for me to work with, because as a director, I love to do Shakespeare and period things -- but I also do very contemporary stuff pretty well.
"So this script really mixes both. People are dressed in swords and the other regalia of the period, and yet what comes out of their mouth feels so contemporary."
The play deals with a fictional Christmas meeting between Henry II and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Henry has imprisoned Eleanor for more than a decade, but periodically releases her for visits as it suits his fancy and his political ambitions.
The central story concerns the battle for the throne between Henry and Eleanor's sons. Complications and intrigues abound. For instance, Henry is having an affair with Alais, the fiancA(c)e of one of his own sons -- and who also happens to be the half-sister of the King of France, and whom he and Eleanor have raised since she came to court at age 8. Alais' father is also Eleanor's ex-husband's son.
"It is like a very old soap opera, in many ways," said Callahan. "It is very biting. I mean, you have to laugh a little when someone calls their own mother a bag of bile! The script is quite cutting and very funny in its word choices. And these characters -- they can all take the blows, and yet they are all so sensitive beneath their armor."
One of the things that makes this play move is the spark that still burns, and sometimes blisters, between Henry and Eleanor.
"It is so awesome to get to play with their romance," said Randall Eames, an acting/directing major at Weber State, who is stage-managing the production. "There is so much passion there -- I think that is what draws them to each other. They are visceral and want to fight, but not just physically. It is more like war. They scheme. They know each other's games, how to push each other's buttons."
The characters of Henry and Eleanor, played by B.J. Whimpey and Marza Warzinske, are in their late middle-age years -- much older, and imbued with far more power than the average college student. Yet the actors playing the roles are in their 20s.
"This fact is forcing them to look at things differently, for these roles," said Eames. "A lot of the tricks they might usually use, they can't here, simply because of their youth. But they are both quite seasoned actors and are very much up to the task."
Said Callahan: "I have a fantastic cast -- a mixture of seniors and freshmen, who are very gifted and driven. And the role of Eleanor, especially, is a bit of a capstone for this actress. She is getting ready to graduate, so this has been fun for her."
Warzinske was honored with a National Partners of the American Theatre Classical Acting Award at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival regionals earlier this month. The award was based on her festival audition; Warzinske performed excerpts from "Macbeth" (as Lady Macbeth) and "Miss Julie" (as the title character).
Warzinske said that playing Eleanor is a joy because she is so full of contradictions, and because there is so much to be found in her relationship with Henry.
"It is always so intense," Warzinske said of the royal marriage. "They have both had their share of extramarital relationships -- and he is in the middle of one right now with a woman who Eleanor essentially raised as her own child. In fact, all of these relationships are complicated, and even in some ways incestuous."
Despite the drama, the intrigue and the heartache in the piece, Warzinske points out that there is a great deal of humor in the play as well.
"It is ultimately a comedy -- even with these characters in these intense and sometimes terrible situations. Because of the way we are, and they way we see each other, and these cynical love-to-hate characters, the way they cope, with humor, is challenging to do and very rewarding."
Warzinske is 23 -- the same age Alais, Henry's trophy mistress, is supposed to be in the play. Eleanor is 60.
"So she is nearly three times my age, and has had, of course, more life experiences than I have -- but to do this role is a matter of tapping into whatever it is you can relate to, and try to eliminate the physicality that makes you look youthful. Of course, the gray wig also helps."
Another attraction to this particular production is the period costuming. Catherine Zublin, professor of theater arts, works to capture the play's period with regal mood in fabrics, accessories and design detail.
Said Callahan: "It is a very romantic-looking time. And since we are doing it in the black box theater, it will be a very intimate setting, and the audience will get to see a lot of the details of her (Zublin's) work here.
"I must say, it is going to be simply gorgeous to look at."