Great Performances You Won’t See on PBS

Gregory Mach and Erin Esposito

There are some great performances in Surflight’s current production, The Lion in Winter. In fact the play puts me in mind of the long running Great Performances PBS series. The Lion in Winter is exactly the kind of erudite but amusing production you might find on public television, and for all I know, perhaps they’ve already done it.

It’s Christmastime in 1183 and King Henry II (Gregory Mach) is 53 years old—ancient in those ancient times. So he’s been contemplating which of his sons shall succeed him when he dies. He favors John (Andrew Foote), the oafish, zit-faced youngest one while Henry’s wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (Kate Konigisor) leans towards the handsome and stalwart oldest son Richard Lionheart (Marc Improta). Poor Geoffrey (John Anker Bow) is the classic middle child who must champion his own cause himself. And so the scheming begins.

Complicating matters is a long ago treaty King Henry signed with the now deceased father of the current boy-king of France, Philip (Christopher Deaton), which betrothed the fair Alais (pronounced “Alice” and portrayed by Erin Esposito) to Richard. But that’s not the half of it. Henry keeps Eleanor under house arrest in another castle except for occasional visits like this little Christmas vacation. (She had gone to war with him because she was peeved he had an affair some years ago.) Philip and Alais are brother and sister (by different wives of the late Louis VII, neither or whom was Eleanor, who was married to him at one time). Richard and Philip were more than hunting buddies, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, back in the day. And Alais, who may or may not be marrying any of the sons, has been dallying with their daddy since she was 16.

Gregory Mach, Andrew Foote and Christopher Deaton

Whew! It’s a Twelfth Century soap opera with daggers. The program calls it "A Comedy in Two Acts" but I'd call it more of a comedy-drama. In a way Lion reminded me of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, which Surflight did in 2002. It’s complicated and cerebral and you have to really pay attention to catch what’s going on. I have to confess that I did a little post-performance research to try to get the facts right and I’m still not sure I did.

So what do I think of The Lion in Winter? It didn’t completely engage me. I actually had a hard time understanding the backstory and exposition and following the plot machinations. This play won’t become a favorite of mine. Yet I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Why? Those great performances. All of the players were spot on but a few deserve to be singled out.

I don’t know how Marc Improta spends his summers but I hope he’ll spend one on Long Beach Island soon. So far Surflight’s only gotten him in the fall. Last year, his first at Surflight, he was good in You Can’t Take it With You and better in Biloxi Blues. The role of Richard however, is more demanding than either of them and he rises to the occasion.

Marc Improta and Kate Konigisor 

I thought Kate Konigisor went a little over the top in 2003’s Lend Me a Tenor. (But that could have been the director’s call.) She was very good in that year’s Brighton Beach Memoirs and last year’s You Can’t Take it With You. But as Eleanor of Aquitaine she’s brilliant. She just doesn’t seem like she’s acting at all.

Perhaps some of the credit for Konigisor's success as Eleanor should go to  Lion's director, James Alexander Bond. Bond once dropped me a note complaining that I don't talk about the direction enough in my reviews. I can't argue with him. I'm guilty and the reason is simple: Ignorance.

In film, which I understand much better than the stage, the director's imprint looms large. (Quick: Who directed say, Taxi Driver? You're right, it was Martin Scorsese. But you can name the screenwriter? I didn't think so.) The impact of the director on a stage play is more subtle and it's only slowly that I am able to tease out how much of what I see is due to the director's choices rather than the actors'. So I offer my apologies to Bond and the other Surflight directors for my negligence and I promise that as my understanding grows, so will my appreciation of their talents. One thing is crystal clear. Bond got the best out of his cast this time around. And they were beautifully illuminated by Sean Perry's lighting design.

Speaking of film, I often praise Surflight actors by comparing them favorably to film actors. I hope they take that as the compliment I mean it to be. I consider it a compliment because film is an inherently better mimesis (more like real life—less stylized) than the stage. To my mind if an actor can create the intimacy and realism of a film performance while projecting his voice to the back of the auditorium, responding to a live audience, making us forget the artificiality of the auditorium and do it all (to put it in film terms) only in long shots and no retakes—well then that’s a great actor. Konigisor is a great actor.

Which brings us to Gregory Mach. He’s new to Surflight. I’ve never seen him before. This guy’s Henry is so good I almost want to withhold my praise until I see him do a completely different role. Maybe he’s just found the absolutely perfect role for himself. As Yul Brynner was to the King of Siam maybe Mach is to Henry II. Well, Brynner turned out to be good in other roles too so I guess I should give Mach the benefit of the doubt. If he can play any other character even half as good as his superb portrayal of Henry, I want to be there to see it.

When Hamlet said, "...the play's the thing,” he was talking about scheming, not theatrical plays. Nevertheless the line is apropos and nevertheless I beg to differ. Sometimes the play isn’t the thing. Sometimes it’s the acting. And the directing. Reason enough to see Surflight's production of  The Lion in Winter.

At the Surflight  October 5  - 8, 2005 at 8:00 pm;  October 6 & 9 at 2:00 pm.