The movie of this play, the late, great Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn, was quite successful a number of years ago. O’Toole was reprising his role of King Henry II from the film Becket. It is a black comedy in the truest sense, giving us biting wit laced with deadly desires. To say the least, they are not very nice people.
This family and friends has more in common with George and Martha and company from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? than any historical context. Their unions are dredged up from the depths of despair, mixed heartily with spit and spices from a moldy cupboard and served exquisitely, hot off the griddle, for our enjoyment, at this festive time of year.
The setting, costuming (Elizabeth Huffman) and dialogue is of our modern times but actually takes place in France a few hundred years ago. England ruled much of France at that time and, of course, like any spoiled child, wanted to keep its ill-gotten gains. War was, well…so bloody and people died, so inter-marrying and treaties were devised as an alternate means of holding onto properties. But, like all such games, the trick was not so much to win, but to win in a classy way. And so this family and friends are well suited to these kind of matches—they have been raised for years in such sport.
Henry (Victor Mack), England’s King, has imprisoned his wife, Eleanor (Marilyn Stacey), because she won’t give him a rich piece of land that he wants. He has agreed to release her for the Christmas holidays, hoping to persuade her to let go of her property, which she has given to their oldest son Richard (Ricardy Charles Fabre), a brilliant military officer, who she backs for succession to the throne. But Henry has other plans for his legacy, backing his youngest son, John (Chip Sherman), a bit of a twit, for this awesome responsibility.
Meanwhile, the middle son, Geoffrey (Joseph Gibson), a schemer, plays both ends against the middle, hoping, that when the smoke clears, he will be the default choice for this role. But Henry must also cement relationships with the King of France, Philip II (Josh Rice), an eager novice in such games and who has had a dalliance with Richard. So he agrees to marry off his French mistress, Alais (Clara-Liis Hillier), a fiery vixen, to Richard, so that the alliance will be secured. Needless to say, this does not set well with her. And Eleanor simply wants her freedom, probably to start other wars.
Such is life with the filthy rich and bored power-mongers. As Eleanor so aptly puts it, in probably the most famous line from the play, “what family doesn’t have its up and downs.” Indeed. But specters from the long ago, ghosts of Christmas Pasts, also haunt these proceedings. Henry’s former love, Rosmond; the King and Eleanor’s first-borne, now dead son, Henry; Thomas Becket; the King of France’s father, Louie; Geoffrey, Henry’s father, possible lover of Eleanor, all are proffered as the ideals. But these warriors charge blindly ahead anyway and woe to the one who cries, “Enough!”
This only scratches the surface of the plot and character twists. All expertly handled by Huffman, the director. The modern setting suits very nicely the proceedings of this story, perhaps mimicking a certain Congress we love to hate. And she has cast and massaged her team well in creating a frightening but memorable experience for the audience. The suffocating, caged-in space bodes well the intensity of the pent-up feelings of such “jungle creatures” as these.
The acting is first-rate by all. Mack is steely, manipulative and heartless as this King. His intensity rarely lets down and then it is only to gain a point or two for his team. Another powerful performance in his repertory of portrayals. Stacey, an icon of Portland theatre, is at the top of her game as Eleanor. She weaves in and out of intrigues, like a snake, leaving nary a track where she has been. Her acting gives us a woman to feel sorry for but also keep at arm’s length. Bravo.
And in Hillier you can understand how a man could “launch a thousand ships” to hold her power and beauty. She is alluring in her bearing and direct in her feelings. Clara-Liis gives the character a real importance to her portrayal and it telegraphs well to the audience. A woman who loves not wisely, perhaps, but too well. And Rice, as her countryman, adds appropriate fuel to the fire.
Fabre is loud and brash as the eldest, presenting us a man to be reckoned with–a staunch warrior. Gibson, as the middle-heir, plays the role with a quiet power, usually in the background but always listening. And Sherman, as in previous productions with Post5, is larger than life, playing the youngest. He portrays this pouty brat, a spoiled child, heartless and brainless, so convincingly, that you tend to miss him when he’s not onstage. A joy to watch.
I recommend this show. If you do go, tell them Dennis sent you.