Many people know this play from the movie, with Peter O'Toole, Katharine Hepburn, and Antony Hopkins (among others), so it is no easy task to produce it at any level, let alone Off-Off-Broadway. The Staten Island Shakespearean Theatre did a creditable job of not reminding the audience of the star-studded film, so it was possible to take the play on its own merits.
The story concerns Henry II (the same one who sort-of-accidentally had Thomas Beckett murdered, and had to crawl in the snow to the Pope for forgiveness), now older and starting to think of his own mortality. He, like Lear, is trying to decide how to allocate his landholdings, which encompass much of what is now France, as well as England. He has three sons -- John (Joe Sonenshein), the youngest, an emotionally disturbed and immature young man; Geoffrey (Daniel Marzollo), the second son, a good administrator but rather lacking in flashiness of any sort; and Richard Lionheart (John Griffin), the very model of a medieval military man. The mix is complicated by the presence of Henry's estranged wife (estranged because he has kept her under house arrest for the last several years), Eleanor (Geraldine Abbate); his mistress, Alais (Laurie Miller), a French princess; and Philip (Daniel Clark), the 17-year-old king of France.
While Henry dithers over which son to leave England to, Eleanor plays politics, inciting each son in turn (and eventually all together) against their father. She even toys with Henry's own self-image, suggesting that she had sex with his father. The level of psychic and political gamesmanship suggests Strindberg in The Father or Albee in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, though without the bite of these two masters of the family scene.
Jack Dabdoub turned in a solid performance as Henry -- perhaps on the too-solid side, lacking in sufficient vocal variety -- though he rose above the general tenor of his role with the speech, full of pathos, ending with the curtain line, "All my boys!" Abbate, as Eleanor, also played her characterization in a lower key than the part calls for. Miller, as Alais, strayed over the line of insipidity, making it hard to believe Henry would be enthralled with her (though a case could be made that he was only using her).
The three sons hit their marks soundly, from the emotionally fragile John through the deferential but intelligent Geoffrey to the butch Richard. Ironic that the only one who didn't seem to be some kind of emotional basket case (Geoffrey) didn't get to be King of England. They contrasted nicely with Clark's Philip of France, who played the role of a precocious young king to the hilt, and then some. This is a young actor -- arrived in New York barely in time to audition for this role -- who should be able to go places. (That one of the smallest roles stole the show suggests an imbalance of casting.)
Nikki Lauren's direction showed good use of focus and stage pictures, and the pacing was just right, given the complexity of much of the dialog. It was clear that the director and actors were in full command of the material. The set (Jon Young), Henry's castle at Chinon, France, incorporated many areas and levels, which Lauren made good use of in the course of the evening. (Medievally dressed stagehands were a clever touch.) Costumes, by Cecilia Somogyi/The Costume Cottage, were a superb rendition of medieval dress, though it wasn't clear why Henry should be dressed the plainest of all (nor why Eleanor should be crowned with an ugly, inert mass of a wig). Vincent Mazella's lighting design provided mostly even illumination over the wide stage, though it tended to be heavier toward the apron. The uncredited sound design included appropriate motets while the audience were being seated.
This is an enjoyable play, though it is a bit too top-heavy with the mind-games and a bit light in the bottom with any actual human significance -- more pomp than circumstance, and therefore very much of its time. S.I.S.T., as usual, got to the meat of things and provided a very creditable interpretation.
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Copyright 2002 John Chatterton