Dysfunctional family relationships have been a rich source of dramatic material for storytellers since stories have been told; most ancient myths and legends involve some aspect of a twisted family dynamic, often played out amongst leaders or kings, usually with tragic consequences (Oedipus, Lear and Zeus are but three examples).
“The Lion in Winter,” Theatre in the Rough’s current production, is a more modern example of this theme, one with a comedic rather than tragic slant. Written in the 1960s by James Goldman, the play didn’t become a classic until it was made into a movie in 1968, starring Peter O’Toole as the King of England, Henry II, and Katharine Hepburn as the Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine.
“Lion” director Doniece Gott, who is making her directorial debut with this play, said her first exposure to the story was through the film, which immediately grabbed her interest. After watching it once she liked it so much she watched it twice more that same day. When she eventually got her hands on the original script, she was even more impressed by the quality of the writing and the power of the story.
In bringing the play to the stage, she kept those elements foremost in her mind.
“I just wanted to do the script justice,” she said. “I like words, I love language, and this play is really rich in language. It’s very well written, and it’s very funny.”
“And I wanted to tell a good story -- it’s already a really good story, so I just wanted to tell that story, and for people to enjoy it.”
The play is set at Christmas-time in 1183. King Henry (Aaron Elmore)’s son, Henry, has died, so the king must choose a successor to the throne from among three of his remaining sons: Richard (Fisher Stevens), Geofrey (Grady Wright) and John (Ben Krall). Henry’s wife, Queen Eleanor (Katie Jensen), wants the eldest son, Richard, to be heir, while Henry favors his youngest son, John. The family decides to invite the young King of France, Philip (Ian Andrews) and his sister, Alais (Megan Behnke), to the castle for Christmas to talk about their plans for the throne. It is understood that Alais, who comes with a very strategic piece of land, will be married to whichever son takes the throne, despite the fact that she is Henry’s mistress.
Though based on historical facts and real people, the story is fiction.
“These people actually exist in history, but this play is not a historical document,” Gott said. “It’s what you would imagine Christmas Day and Eve might be like amongst these people.”
And as you would imagine, with stakes this high and relationships this intimate, life amongst this crowd can get quite spicy indeed. The political themes -- ambition, political maneuvering, strategy games -- are intertwined with family themes -- sibling rivalry, parental aging, spousal tension -- to the point where they are nearly indistinguishable, Gott said.
“It’s all mixed together,” she said. “Henry even says, during an argument with Alais, she says, ‘I talk people and you answer back in provinces.’ And he says ‘They get mixed up.’”
Gott said that though things get very tense at times, she encouraged the actors not to get carried away by anger.
“There is a lot of dysfunction, but it’s a comedy -- it says so right on the cover of the script,” she said. “It’s easy to forget that because they’re so vitriolic and horrible to each other, they say the most terrible things, and they’re constantly plotting and scheming, and they love to see the other fail. But if it’s kept light, and not hateful ... it’s not a battle so much as it’s a game. It’s just what they do, it’s how they are.”
When they did show anger, Gott encouraged her actors to see the layers underneath it.
“You don’t tell an actor ‘OK, be angry,’” she said. “Anger isn’t an original feeling. Anger comes from fear, anger comes from sadness -- you can’t just be angry. It has to come from somewhere else.”
Gott also wanted to show that though Henry and Eleanor have had some troubles in the past -- for example, he’s kept her locked up in prison for the past ten years because she tried to incite a civil war against him -- their relationship began as, and still contains, real love.
“They’ve been going at it for so long they don’t know how to relate to each other any other way,” Gott said.
Gott said one of the pleasures of the show is watching Theatre in the Rough co-artistic directors Elmore and Jensen in roles of King Henry and Queen Eleanor. Eleanor, in particular, is a demanding and strong female role, one Jensen is perfect for, Gott said. Eleanor has the most lines of anyone in the play.
“I don’t know how long Katie’s been thinking about being Eleanor, but she is doing amazing work,” she said. “And she’s a hard character to play.”
Both Henry and Eleanor change tactics multiple times within the course of one conversation, Gott said, in trying to get the upper hand.
Gott said it’s also fun to watch Elmore and Jensen, who are married in real life, face off against each other.
“It’s fun to watch them spar, and they both have such good comic timing,” she said. “You know that they truly love each other, so it’s fun to watch them be mean to each other, I have to say,” she said with a laugh.
In finding an approach to directing, Gott said she drew heavily on her experience with Jensen and Elmore, who have directed nearly all of the plays Theatre in the Rough has produced since they founded it 20 years ago. Gott began working with the pair in 1999, acting in at least one show a season since then.
“Everything I know about what I think a good director is, I learned from Katie and Aaron,” she said. “And I had the privilege of working with Anita Maynard Losh before she left, she also taught me a lot.”
Directing “Lion in Winter” was for Gott the realization of a long-time dream: directing a play she loves in her home town with the theater company she’s worked with as an actor for more than a decade. But like anyone who brings a dream to life, Gott experienced the process of actually making it happen with a mixture of excitement and dread.
“I would come to rehearsal and say ‘Oh my god, I feel so sick!’ And Katie would say, ‘You’re right on schedule, first day of staging, I always throw up the first day of staging.’” Gott laughed. “I didn’t actually get sick but I felt like it for sure.’”
But during the preview performance, last Thursday, the audience laughed heartily and often, and she finally began to relax.
Gott said one of the challenges of directing for the first time was learning to broaden the scope of her attention.
“It’s different because you’re watching everyone, you’re not just paying attention to what you’re doing, and how your character fits into the story, and the arc of the story and following your character’s arc, and being part of an ensemble. You do pay attention to other people (as an actor) but as a director you have to figure out the arc of the story and how people find their own story within that story.”
Gott had the interesting experience of directing not only Jensen and Elmore — two of Juneau’s finest and most experienced actors — but also teenagers with varying levels of experience on stage. Of the seven actors in the play, five are under 21.
This was the second Theatre in the Rough production for both Ben Krall and Fisher Stevens, and the very first for Grady Wright, while Megan Behnke and Ian Andrews have both been Roughians for years.
“Megan was in her first show with us when she was 13, and now she’s 19 and she’s playing a love interest to Aaron,” Gott said. ”It’s hard to believe that we’re this far. All the sudden here she is, this gorgeous young woman.”
“Same thing with Ian Andrews — the first show he was in with us, he was 8 years old. He was Astyanax in ‘Trojan Women’ and he was just this little, slight, wispy blond kid. And now he’s a man and he plays the King of France.”
Given the large number of teenagers in the cast, Gott wasn’t sure how some of the spicier aspects of the script would go over the first time they rehearsed them, namely a scene where young Behnke has to kiss Elmore in front of Jensen, and a slightly homoerotic scene between the young King of France and Henry’s eldest son (Andrews and Stevens). In both cases, Gott need not have worried.
“It was really cool to see these kids,” she said. It was just another relationship, just another scene, just two people communicating onstage with obstacles, and motivations, and things that they want, and they do a really really good job. I’m really proud of them.”
In keeping up with all the non-human elements of the production, Gott said she had lots of assistance: the set and costumes were designed, as usual, by Elmore; Jensen, as usual, designed the sound (carried out by Brandon Smith and Carl Brodersen); Stage Manager Catherine Melville designed the lights (with Aubrey Finch-Hyphen and Jim Simard). Also helping out behind the scenes were Phil Schempf, Bonnie Chaney and Lael Harrison.
Gott said through the whole process, she was bolstered by the fact that Jensen and Elmore trusted her enough to let her direct one of their shows, and she hoped she would get the chance to do it again.
Though directing was an entirely new experience, the bottom line was the same as acting.
“I just want to tell a story, ultimately, and that’s the best thing Katie and Aaron have taught me,” she said. “You’re not up there to make people laugh. You’re not up there to look pretty. You’re not up there for yourself at all. You’re up there to tell a story, to give a story to people, to give all you can. Once you stop giving and you try to get, you’re lost.”
KNOW AND GO
What: Theatre in the Rough’s Lion in Winter
Where: McPhetres Hall.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, fridays and Saturdays through March 11, with two 2 p.m. Sunday matinees March 4 and 11.