Feb 26, 2020
THE LION IN WINTER Roars Into Life at The Ritz Theatre Company
(February, 2020 — Haddon Township, NJ) — The Ritz Theatre Company is proud to present the second show of its 35th Anniversary season, The Lion in Winter, a delicious family drama teeming with schemes, scandals, squabbles, and power struggles—all on a kingly scale. Directed by Dr. Elisabeth Hostetter, the production runs from March 5th through March 22nd.
“We often find ourselves looking to our own storied history, and The Lion in Winter, last performed on the Ritz stage in 1989 (over thirty years ago!), is a show very much defined by its tension, humor, and timeless family dynamics, making it very relatable for any given audience member,” says Producing Artistic Director Bruce A. Curless. “High drama and history provide the background for intrigue and set the stage for great storytelling.”
A modern-day classic set in medieval times, The Lion in Winter, written by James Goldman, brings to life the intricate interpersonal relationships of the royal Plantagenet family, who are locked in a free-for-all of competing ambitions to inherit the Kingdom of England. Set during Christmas of the year 1183, the dramatic impetus of the play sees the ever-cunning King Henry II primed and ready to throw a holiday feast for the newly crowned King of France (a celebration rife with his own ulterior motives, of course). Also in attendance for the not-so-affectionate festivities are Henry’s three plotting sons, each eager to take the throne, and Henry’s manipulative wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, newly released from prison (after once raising an army against Henry). Even though they need to appear a happy family for the French King, this doesn’t stop each Plantagenet from secretly plotting to take the others down. While the three sons quarrel and conspire to take their place in history, Eleanor and Henry use their offspring as pawns against each other in a dangerous game of cat and mouse.
“Similar to any drama revolving around a royal family, the crown and politics may function as the driving force of the plot, but what makes this play so resonant and scintillating are the vibrant relationships that swiftly come to the fore,” says Curless. “Henry’s different relationships with each of his sons, his wife, his mistress, and the King of France become a rich, elaborate background for the story to unfold, and, as such, we are tremendously excited to have theatre and storytelling scholar Elisabeth Hostetter at the helm for this revival.”
A professor at Rowan University, Dr. Hostetter teaches theatre history, dramatic literature, and acting for non-majors as part of the school’s College of Performing Arts and occasionally directs for the mainstage Rowan season. Previous Ritz credits include directing The Foreigner in 2004 and appearing in the company’s 2003 production of The Crucible. Dr. Hostetter is also a co-founder of the “In Other Words Project” that helps promote recent translations of politically relevant work from other countries and has toured theatres in Western Europe, Southeast Asia, Greece, and Turkey—academic pursuits that are clearly connected to her fascination with The Lion in Winter.
“I am drawn to plays with ‘smart’ language that allow actors to physically and vocally explore complex and compelling characters, which this play does in spades,” says Dr. Hostetter. “As a theatre professor, I am also a huge fan of historic drama. This play beautifully captures the spirit of Henry II’s contentious reign, while simultaneously engaging and entertaining contemporary audiences. It traces a very interesting period of medieval history, but the modern language and quick-witted characters make the play so relatable. The classic movie starring Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole is timeless, but the script rings especially true today in relation to ambitious and powerful families that rule in our contemporary corporate and political climate. We love to watch the machinations of the rich and powerful, and as Queen Eleanor says in the play, ‘Well, what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?’”
The original Broadway production of The Lion in Winter opened at the Ambassador Theatre on March 3, 1966, starring Robert Preston as King Henry and Rosemary Harris as Eleanor, the latter of whom went on to win the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for her part in the production. Just two years later, the play was adapted by Goldman into a critically acclaimed film of the same name, featuring the aforementioned Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn in the lead roles. Similar to Harris before her, Hepburn went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actress for her turn as the famous queen, while Goldman himself took home the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Fast forward forty-odd years or so, and it can certainly be said that the play has become somewhat of a stealthy staple in our contemporary dramaturgical landscape, proving its remarkable staying power through its overall cultural transcendence and thematic prowess. Fox TV’s drama Empire is explicitly based on The Lion in Winter and, in a more medieval vein, the play also carries the flavor of HBO’s Game of Thrones. With the play thus exploring (and arguably deconstructing) such universal themes as family turmoil, love and loss, mortality and immortality, and the exceedingly intimate link between aspirations and machinations, there’s no question that the dysfunction emanating from this royal nuclear family is something all audiences can identify, empathize, and sympathize with, something that fuels Dr. Hostetter’s passion as director of the production.
“I particularly enjoy the strategic twists and turns of the plot and, most importantly, I genuinely like all of the characters, even when they are occasionally sneaky and self-serving. The characters are an extended family and they share a genuine love for power, but they ultimately also dearly love one another. I consider the play a very sophisticated game of chess, where all of the characters strive to outplay everyone else on stage. They are practiced competitors and, like all British royals throughout history, they grew up closely scrutinized by the rest of the world. Each of them really wants to win the crown and/or eternal glory. Most Americans enjoy watching a gripping competition and this play is like a great game featuring world-class players.”
All told, this new Ritz production of The Lion in Winter promises to keenly and kinetically convey the multifarious, ever-changing family dynamics that run rampant throughout the play, blending all the bickering and backstabbing with the inherent universality at the crux of the story.
“Essentially, I hope the audience is on the edge of their seats wondering which characters are telling the truth and which are losing the ultimate battle for the crown,” says Dr. Hostetter. “I want them to root for their favorite character and I am confident that everyone in the audience will be able to directly relate to at least one character on stage. To that end, the success of this play lays in great casting and I am particularly honored and fortunate to work with truly stellar and talented actors.”
Making up Dr. Hostetter’s eight-actor ensemble are performers John Jackowski (King Henry II), Judy Morris (Eleanor of Aquitaine), Michael Pliskin (Richard), Jack Sharkey (Geoffrey), Joseph Colasante (John), Robert Repici (King Philip II), and Elizabeth Darrell (Alais Capet). Rounding out the production team are costumer Jacq Spence, set designer Bart Healy (reviving his exact design from the original 1989 Ritz production), lighting designer Matthew Weil, sound designer Matthew Gallagher, and prop master Melissa Harnois. All are eager to deliver a show that’s equally riveting, vivid, and evocative.
“The audience is in for a fast-paced, entertaining ride through history with a laser focus on family intrigue,” concludes Dr. Hostetter. “I have truly enjoyed watching this show come together and I am thrilled to bring this work back to the Ritz stage.”