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Audiences are Roaring for LION

A king shouts to the sky. A queen stands next to him and looks frustrated.
Photo of John Hoogenakker and Rebecca Spence by Michael Brosilow.

Opening Night of The Lion in Winter was a resounding success! This production is being royally praised by critics and audiences alike for its witty language, incredible performances, and cunning plots. People are thoroughly enjoying their time with history’s most dysfunctional family and are feeling right at home in King Henry II’s castle.

This production runs through Sunday, December 3. Tap into your scheming side and get your tickets today!

“Parson’s ensemble creates a complex, riveting genre hybrid: This Lion in Winter is a psychological thriller and a family drama and — intermittently — a near-farcical comedy, although humor comes with a cost. Stump-dumb princes and vainglorious monarchs are funny, as long as you don’t think about the dungeons they build or the heads they chop off. The Lion in Winter makes you think about both.

Initially, Henry seems like someone you’d want to have a goblet of spiced wine with. But kings don’t create dynasties by being nice guys, and Hoogenakker also makes Henry’s ruthless willingness to silence and destroy anyone who threatens him chilling…Spence’s Eleanor is vivid and layered, every inch Henry’s equal…Eleanor can go from teary and sincere to wily and calculating in the space of a breath. It’s a fascinating portrayal.

Walker takes a harrowing journey as Henry’s mistress Alais, a young woman trapped between two seasoned power-mongers…The brothers are a disparate trio. Hamilton’s John is earnest, dim and heart-wrenching in his repeated, desperate insistence that “Dad loves me best.” As middle child Geoffrey, Miller brings the comedy, bemoaning the unfairness of being forever overlooked. Kenyon’s Richard the Lionheart is the mercurial killer in the trio…And as Philip Capet, king of France, Baldasare utterly nails the deadpan surliness of a teenager bored with the adults in the room and the cunning of a man who learned early how to keep a lifelong secret.

The production plays out on set designer Linda Buchanan’s towering, shadowy castle walls. Christine Pascual creates a lesson in early stealth wealth: From the brothers’ tunics to Eleanor’s lightly sparkled gown, the costumes look luxurious but never showy. The aesthetics help make The Lion in Winter roar. Henry ruled more than 800 years ago. Parson makes it feel as familiar as today.”

— Chicago Sun-Times, 4 out of 4 stars

“Rebecca Spence is breathtakingly good as Eleanor. To say her performance is highly nuanced is an understatement. She shows us all the emotions that Eleanor goes through – happy ones, angry ones, and tearful ones. As astonishing as she is in dramatic moments, Spence also has impeccable comic timing, finding all the underlying humor in the script. In the hands of a truly gifted actress, this is an award-worthy role. Spence is not only gifted, she is a gift to experience. Her performance is one of the best of the year…The interplay between Spence and [John] Hoogenakker is theatre magic at its best – two brilliant talents sparring in the spotlight.” 

— Life and Times

“I came expecting a serious melodrama centered on the complex interpersonal relationships of Henry’s tattered family, and so was pleasantly surprised to find myself laughing along with the rest of the audience at the sarcastic jabs, verbal taunting, and what in the skilled hands of Director and Resident Artist Ron OJ Parson, was the almost comically inept plotting by the three sons. Despite a play whose main source of action is based on dialogue, I found the performance fast paced and was completely drawn into what was happening on the stage. You didn’t want to miss a word of the verbal potshots being landed right and left between those on stage.

It was the opening night for the Court Theatre’s 2023-2024 season, which now in its 69th season, has built a firm foundation on reimagining the classics for a modern audience. It was my first time visiting the Tony-award winning theatre, and I will return. What struck my husband and I was the sense of community and camaraderie among the theatergoers…We were even greeted warmly by our row-mates, something I have not experienced at other theatres, and it made for a family-like atmosphere in this intimate setting.

From start to finish, the performance was captivating; each aspect working in harmony toward the end goal.”

— Buzz Center Stage

“[Ron OJ Parson reveals] the universal components of the battle between Henry II and his imprisoned wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, over who will inherit the throne. As they and their sons plot and spar, we see every family with something to fight over and lose, from Medea to King Lear to Succession.

And if the result is actually more The Lioness in Winter, that’s because Rebecca Spence infuses Eleanor with wisdom that continues to elude John Hoogenakker’s Henry. She sees that efforts to shape the world after their deaths are futile, and moreover, that those efforts have cost them the love of their lives—each other. This Eleanor has figured out that their sons are disappointments, their lovers mere distractions, and even their prized land just dirt, and she spends the play trying to convey that to Henry, who’s too busy scheming to notice that his life is slipping away. These two well-matched performers receive able support from Shane Kenyon, Brandon Miller, and Kenneth La’Ron Hamilton as the rival princes, Anthony Baldasare as the king of France, and the tender Netta Walker as his sister (who is also Henry’s winter passion). Linda Buchanan’s castle set makes clear that Eleanor may be the only one in custody, but they’re all trapped.”

— Chicago Reader, Reader Recommended

“I’ve always been fond of The Lion in Winter for its wit and underlying warmth. Court’s well-directed and nicely staged production — with chilly-castle scenic design by Linda Buchanan, lighting by Jared Gooding, sensual costumes by Christine Pascual, sound design and composition by Christopher Kriz, and violence and intimacy consulting from Nick Sandys — is a winner. Spence’s performance as Eleanor makes it a ‘must-see.'”

— Hyde Park Herald

The Lion in Winter is the kind of slow emotional bloodsport that many of us may recognize from our own family holidays. For a play infused with so much intrigue and subterfuge it makes for surprisingly pleasant holiday viewing. While most of Chicago’s stages are littered with elves, puppets, knee-high stockings, and Tiny Tims, Court has programmed something riskier. It pays off….It has that wonderful thing that plays from the 1960s really nailed: a group of people with inextricable ties, trapped in a room for a short amount of time, causing each other as much pain as possible over a holiday meal or dinner party.”

— Rescripted

“Director Ron OJ Parson’s impressively versatile staging ably meets the play on its own terms. He and the actors find moments of subtlety to tease out the motivations behind the characters’ actions…Of course, that’s also a testament to the skills of the show’s cast, who bring these scheming devils to life with relish. The Lion in Winter is a playground for actors, a world in which words are weapons and every moment is packed with tension. In the hands of lesser performers, this could easily be the stuff of high school drama, just so much empty speechifying. The talented ensemble here digs into the text – and one another – with the enthusiasm of a hungry uncle tucking into a Christmas spread.”

— ChicagoOnStage

“It’s kitschy and bitchy and fun—a historic soap opera, not to be taken too seriously as history or literature.”

— NewCity Stage, Recommended

“Resident Artist Ron OJ Parson directs the Court Theatre’s opening production for their 2023/24 season with his usual passion and bold strokes of brilliance. This is really a domestic drama, but of epic proportions, and told through contemporary thoughts and words.” 

— Chicago Theatre Review, Recommended

“The actors John Hoogenakker and Rebecca Spence performed excellently in The Lion in Winter. Their characters’ manipulative wit and sarcastic bantering were convincing, and they successfully portrayed the complex emotions of their roles. The audience could feel their pain and passion, and it was clear that they were trying to outmaneuver each other cleverly. [Shane] Kenyon, who is also making his Court debut, provided the grit and power of Richard Lionheart, and [Netta] Walker did a sterling performance as Henry II’s mistress, Alais.…The Lion in Winter influenced other works, such as the popular TV show, Empire. Lee Daniels also acknowledges that the soap opera Dynasty was a strong influence. It’s a testament to the play’s lasting impact and its portrayal of family dynamics and power struggles that still resonate with audiences today.

— Let’s Play Theatrical Reviews

“You get John Hoogenakker as Henry, all cynical and weary. At one moment, his personality seems to disappear beneath his eyebrows, only for him to rise up like a prematurely aged King Lear. And then there’s Rebecca Spence, Chicago’s premiere interpreter (for my money, anyway) of heightened, poetic drama with attitude. Wry, droll and always additive of intelligence to any fictional character, Spence is a sophisticated dispenser of words. She’s very capable of what you might call the classic Hollywood style, which happens to be a good match for this particular play. You’ll have a good time watching what these two do, as ably supported by Kenneth La’Ron Hamilton, Shane Kenyon (a most lively and pugnacious Richard), Brandon Miller, Anthony Baldasare and the very game Netta Walker…”

— Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune

“Alliances shift at head-spinning speed as the kings set out to outmaneuver each other, and the queen sows chaos while the sons make one murderous plan after the next…Come to think of it, this is a good play to see in preparation for breaking bread with fractious, boorish relatives over the holidays.”

— Chicago Culture Authority

“Fans of Shakespeare’s histories will delight in this story. [Ron OJ] Parsons’ direction injects just the right touch of humor, lightness, and romance into such a serious subject matter. This 2.5 hour show (with one intermission) goes by very quickly.”

— Around the Town Chicago

Posted on November 13, 2023 in Productions

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