Monday, April 18, 2011

Passion and Wit in A Spring's Fine Winter

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s The Lion In Winter

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Quite a few people could be heard commenting on the set opening night. Stephen Hudson-Mairet’s giant, imposing castle structure seems heavy and solid enough for the giant stone blocks to tumble through the stage floor of the Cabot Theatre. The massive grey stone structure (lovingly carved out of foam, no doubt,) serves as the backdrop to Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of The Lion In Winter. A joint production with the Marquette University Theatre program, this particular Lion mixes some of Marquette’s best young stage talent with inspired performances by a quartet of strikingly good Equity actors.

Brian Mani and Tracy Michelle Arnold play husband and wife as king and queen pitted against each other in the late 12th century. Mani and Arnold are absolutely brilliant in the roles. For Mani, this is an opportunity to play the full wit and power of a king in his later years—a role that he absolutely thrives in. The overwhelming gravity of his voice and the grizzled, earthbound energy of Mani’s performance engages with Arnold’s in an impressively intricate dynamic.

Tracy Michelle Arnold’s performance here remains captivating throughout the play on a seemingly endless number of shifting translucent levels. The character’s compassion, ambition, empathy, affection all shift around in response to a complicated game of strategy played-out between her, her husband and their three sons. Arnold has a real gift for the stark simplistic subtlety of dry humor that adds to the play immeasurably. Playwright James Goldman’s wit dazzles under the influence of Mani and Arnold.

Two of the royal couple’s sons are also played with clever intensity by Equity actors. Lenny Banovez plays Geoffrey--the intellect of the three sons. Banovez plays the low-key intellect behind the power—a policy man who knows where the true influence lies and how to manage it. It’s a very minimalist performance that would be easy to miss, but Banovez nails it brilliantly in a way that adds immeasurably to the production. Marcus Truschinski plays Richard with an endlessly restless energy. Even standing still he seems to be moving at a heady emotional velocity.

Notable Marquette performances here include a precisely poised Joe Picchetti as King Philip of France and Alexandra Bonesho as the king’s young mistress Alais. Picchetti has come a long way in Marquette’s theatre program. There’s a strikingly lean precision about his comportment. Alexandra Bonesho plays the younger, more active end of an energy brought to the stage by Arnold. It’s a lot of fun to watch her play a character this intricate onstage playing so closely to Mani and Arnold.

This is the second time this season that Milwaukee Chamber has featured a talented university actress onstage with an impressive professional cast. Mauritius had UWM actress Sara Zientek playing against an equally talented group of professional actors including C. Michael Wright, Jonathan Wainwright and Drew Brhel. This has been a remarkably good year for Milwaukee Chamber—a company that continues to show practical and sustainable interest in continuing to develop and maintain a growing theatre culture in the greater Milwaukee area.

Director C. Michael Wright has done a really good job putting together The Lion In Winter. It may be something like two and a half hours long, but it’s so engrossing that it feels two and a half hours shorter than the 90-minute show I saw the previous evening. My wife, who is due to give birth to our upcoming daughter in a couple of weeks, had no difficulty sitting through the entire show. It truly says a lot that a woman in an advanced state of pregnancy (a woman who hates long shows to begin with) came out of the theatre opening night surprised that it was already later than 10:30 pm.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of The Lion In Winter runs through May 1st at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Cabot Theatre. For reservations, call 414-291-7800. A far more concise review of the show runs in this week’s Shepherd-Express.

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