Two things became clear to me in the first few moments of attending “The Lion in Winter” at The Pennsylvania Playhouse, Bethlehem.
First, that some of Bethlehem’s most talented actors were brought in to bring this medieval narrative to life, truly breathing fresh air into some familiar-feeling characters.
Second, The Pennsylvania Playhouse has such a fantastic reputation for a reason.
“The Lion in Winter,” which concluded its run Oct. 22 at the Playhouse, was advertised as the equivalent of a historical “Game of Thrones,” features King Henry IV and his dysfunctional family: His three sons, who are vying for his title and lands; his wife, imprisoned for attempting to assassinate him, and his mistress, whom he has raised since she was age seven.
The narrative follows them as they are pushed to the brink by the pressures of negotiating with a foreign king, Philip of France, and by their close proximity to one another, with various back stabbings and lengthy monologues ensuing.
The set design is simple but impactful, making careful and smart use of every aspect of the small stage. Elaborate props are kept carefully hidden in the scenery, sometimes only used in a single scene, helping to make those moments that much more memorable.
Music is used between scenes, and while it doesn’t stay with you once the play has concluded, it helps to build tension and adds to the overall mood and tone.
What stands out most clearly is some of the talented individuals featured in the production. Gene Connelly and Jeanie Olah as the king and queen are phenomenal and have some genuinely strong and inspiring chemistry. They hold themselves like royalty, yet present weakness and struggles very clearly in a way that makes them feel relatable rather than above the other characters. There’s a humanity to it all that allows the audience to make a connection with the struggles they face.
The three brothers, while archetypal in their single-note personalities, are well-portrayed. Jeremy Thompson presents a powerful and emotional distant Richard. Chris Keyser a sniveling and uncertain John. Colin Walsh the dastardly and witty Geoffrey.
Marian Barshinger and Drake Nester portray Alais and Phillip, minor characters who nevertheless have a profound impact on the world this royal family inhabits. Barshinger’s Alais shows a brave honesty in a world dominated by lies and trickery, while Nester’s Philip thrives on the game of cat and mouse, playing into the intrigue in hopes of coming away with what he wants.
The play itself, first performed in 1966, shows its age to an extent. Some of the dialogue can come across as a little janky. The first scene presents a lot of exposition in a rather ham-fisted manner. The historical context also slightly hinders some of the narrative. While the events are based on events the time period, they are purely fictional. Because of this, the play must end with a specific status quo to allow for actual historical events to take place.
That being said, The Pennsylvania Playhouse does an amazing job taking this somewhat old work and transforming it in a way that makes it immediately engaging, appealing, and exciting.