White Rock Players Club's Lion’s tale has edge

Elyse Maloway and Ben Odberg rehearse a scene from the White Rock Players Club’s The Lion in Winter.  - Fred Partridge photo
Elyse Maloway and Ben Odberg rehearse a scene from the White Rock Players Club’s The Lion in Winter.
— image credit: Fred Partridge photo

History classes were never so pithy – or witty.

The Lion In Winter, White Rock Players’ upcoming presentation (April 11-28, Coast Capital Playhouse, 1532 Johnston Rd.) seems to have everything going for it.

Medieval costumes and stage fighting, a dysfunctional royal family with a closetful of skeletons, and dialogue replete with zinger lines and modern-audience-friendly references… it’s like Shakespeare re-imagined as ‘reality’ TV or, as director Dale Kelly describes it,  “a very stylish All In The Family with swords.”

So entertaining is the 1966 James Goldman play – which had its most celebrated incarnation as a 1968 film with Katherine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole –  audiences may well forget it’s about some very real personalities of late 12th century Europe.

Principal focus is on the imperious Henry II of England (Ben Odberg), his older wife and astute opponent, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Lori Tych), and his sons, warlike Richard the Lionheart (Bryce Mills), wily Geoffrey (Glen Surzyshyn), and weakling John (Keaton Mazurek).

No less historical are the characters of Philip II,  the young King of France (David Quast), and his sister Alais Capet (Elyse Maloway), both of whom have significant claims on the in-fighting royals in an era when English kings still swore fealty to the French crown.

In fact, the story takes place in France – at Henry’s castle at Chinon, in the Anjou region, in the winter of 1183.

A family reunion at Christmas is the scene of barbed maneuvering around a basic question – who stands to succeed the aging, but still vital, Henry and further his dream of an independent English monarchy.

Theatre-goers can expect verbal jousts, physical struggles and emotional warfare – with more than a few shattering revelations along the way.

Which makes The Lion in Winter a canny choice for the Players’ Club’s entry in this year’s Theatre B.C. Vancouver Zone festival, which also takes place at the Coast Capital Playhouse (April 29 - May 5).

“It’s one of those shows that everyone wants to do,” acknowledged Kelly, who has been planning the show for close to a year with his frequent collaborator, wife Colleen.

He noted that Surzyshyn – who he previously directed in the Players Club’s 2007 production of Madonna – actually auditioned for the show over the Internet from Winnipeg, where he makes his main residence.

“He got a friend to act with him and gave a very good audition,” Kelly said.

“I think that’s the most long-distance audition I’ve ever done.”

He said he’s also happy to have the chance to work again with actors of the proven calibre and presence of Odberg and Tych – now marking their third co-starring appearance on the White Rock boards, following last season’s Earth and Sky (for Kelly) and Accomplice (for David Lloyd Austin).

“Ben and Lori make a very good team – they’re both trying to find the intense moments as well as the comedy. Henry and Eleanor are both trying to trade off and make deals with each other – but the attraction is still there, they’re still each other’s intellectual equals.”

A more than 30-year community theatre veteran – this will be the 76th show he’s directed for some 20 Lower Mainland groups since 1979 –  Kelly said he’s also enjoying working for the first time with Quast, Mills, Mazurek and Maloway.

Researching The Lion in Winter has been fascinating he said, particularly learning about the dynamism of the long-lived, resourceful Eleanor, a woman who would have been extraordinary in any age.

And while Goldman took some liberties with fact, he noted, the playwright’s  informed guesses succeed in breathing life into the historical characters.

“Everything involved in the show is a simplification,” he said. “Everything happened, but not necessarily in the order it happens in the show.”

Because it’s a festival competitor – with the aim of being selected to represent the zone at the Theatre B.C. Mainstage festival, the show has been designed to travel light, Kelly said.

That means building set pieces rather than a full set and employing creative ‘gobo’ lighting effects he said, and he’s also added a retinue of court servants who double as scene shifters, allowing for fluid scene changes rather than long and clumsy interruptions.

“I like doing shows like that – I think everything flows a lot better that way,” Kelly said, adding the show will provide club set builder Colin Fotherby his on-stage debut.

Atmosphere will also be served by Leigh Burton’s evocative costumes, he said, while he expects an added sense of realism through the help of the Society for Creative Anachronism, who are supplying authentic medieval armour, weaponry and expertise.

That sense of danger is important to his vision of the play, Kelly explained.

“Even though it’s billed as ‘a comedy in two acts’ there’s a lot of darkness in there,” he said. “It was a very violent time and there’s a lot of violence within the show, from the family members to each other.

“It needs that edge. The final solution to most of their problems was killing whoever stood in their way – there seemed to be no other alternative.”

For tickets and information, visit www.whiterockplayers.ca or call 604-536-7535.

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