Witty play arrives in time for the holidays

The upcoming performance of “The Lion in Winter,” a royal Christmas drama directed by Zeke Maben ’17, is inspired by the movie version starring Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole. Courtesy of Avco Embassy Pictures via Wikimedia
The upcoming performance of “The Lion in Winter,” a royal Christmas drama directed by Zeke Maben ’17, is inspired by the movie version starring Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole. Courtesy of Avco Embassy Pictures via Wikimedia
The upcoming performance of “The Lion in Winter,” a royal Christmas drama directed by Zeke Maben ’17, is inspired by the movie version starring Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole. Courtesy of Avco Embassy Pictures via Wikimedia

If you had a childhood, or have seen Tim Bur­ton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” you’ll know that nothing goes together quite like Christmas and Halloween. This Halloweekend, make sure to head over to the Shiva to check out Vassar’s take on a Christmas tale in Philatheis’s production of “The Lion in Winter,” this Thurs­day, Oct. 27 through Saturday, Oct. 29, with all three showings at 8 p.m.

Set during the Christmas of 1183, “The Lion in Winter” tells the story of a royal family in tur­moil. Eleanor, the wife of King Henry II, has re­cently been released from prison for the holiday and vows to ensure that her oldest son succeed her husband to the throne. Written by James Goldmann in 1966, “The Lion in Winter” first caught the eye of director Zeke Maben ’17 in high school. Maben said, “I first came across ‘The Lion in Winter’ when I saw a performance of it at the NJ Shakespeare Theater … It immediately struck me as an immensely moving and witty play and remained in my head ever since.” After seeing the 1968 film adaptation starring Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn during his sophomore year at Vassar, Maben knew he had to put it on. Struck by its notions of family and identity, Maben noted, “I feel it says things about the way power affects people’s relationships with each other and I hope to convey that in our production.”

Claire Norden ’20 portrays Henry’s wife Elea­nor and described her character as an extraordi­narily determined woman: “She’ll do just about anything to see the son she wants on the throne. She’s a very interesting character to play because her motives are not always clear, which is also probably the hardest part of performing for me.”

Matthew Brill-Carlat ’19 provides quite a few laughs in his portrayal of Prince John a charac­ter described as “smelling of compost.” As he explained, John is someone struggling to define himself: “Amidst all of Henry and Eleanor and Richard and Geoffrey’s machinations, John is des­perately trying to prove he can hang with the big kids. He isn’t too smart, he’s entitled and he picks awfully weird times to show his backbone.” Yet, Brill-Carlat does not wish to constrain his charac­ter to simply a role of comic relief. “John is a very comedic character. He is pretty dumb in a pretty funny way. But there are moments where I feel that selling out for the laughs would betray John.” While the play is certainly quite witty, Brill-Car­lat also recognizes its thoughtfulness: “This play is very funny, and John plays his part in that, but there is a kernel of seriousness in it. Bringing out that kernel in John has been both my greatest challenge and my greatest pleasure.”

Production Manager Elianna Scheide ’20 is looking forward to opening night, but she stressed that working backstage for this show presents particular challenges. “I think some of the biggest challenges I have seen are the quick pace and the changing technical aspects of the show…finding a happy medium of practical and artistic is always a challenge.” Yet her biggest joy is watching it all come together: “I am most excit­ed for the audience to experience the communal work of the production!” Maben too brought up how integral the design is, noting, “I’m really ex­cited for the audience to see our set, light, sound and costume design, and moreover see what our cast does with them. We’ve made what I think are really cool design choices…”

“The Lion in Winter” is sure to be a Vassar event that should not be missed. Norden is eager­ly awaiting the audience’s reaction to the many different characters. She stated, “I’m really excit­ed to see which characters the audience roots for, if any. All of the characters are very deceitful and I will love to see the reactions they get.” Maben too hopes that audiences pay attention to all that the play has to offer, and reflected, “I feel that ‘The Lion in Winter’ has a lot of really interesting and often subtle things to say about how people can lose sight of what is important to them when distracted by other elements of their lives.” In a time (and election season) where we feel so di­vided, “The Lion in Winter” brings it back home. As Brill-Carlat said, “Deep down this is a play about a family. A funny play about a fictionalized medieval family, yes, but a play about a family nevertheless.”

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