A theatre critic, I’m not. I continually remind myself about that whenever I attend a play at Williamston Theatre, a wonderful professional theatre in Williamston, Michigan.
I write about things going on in my life. Regarding entertainment, though, I write about subjects that influence me: books, art, movies, theatre. I write, not to please anyone in particular. I write, because in the writing, I can share how these things affect me: how my life (or my outlook on it) transforms a little, having experienced that particular book, artwork, movie, concert or play.
The Williamston Theatre production The Lion in Winter, playing now through February 23, moved and inspired me. I was delighted for the opportunity to see such a classic. We don’t often get out to other Michigan theatres, so I appreciate having this local cultural connection to great theatre art and artists.
The Lion in Winter – the story of King Henry II of England and three sons battling over who would be heir to the throne in the year 1183 – revealed something to me. This production highlighted for me the new dimensions of spirit and certain touch of class that I’ve been enjoying in my personal theatre experience at Williamston Theatre.
I realized it when I was sitting inches from the players during an opening weekend performance. Honestly, and we say this every time, it is truly amazing how the show comes together for these first performances. This particular time we were seated with good friends, and as I mentioned, just inches from the performers. You could stick your foot out and trip an actor. You could forget where you are, and dive impromptu into the action.
The intimacy of Williamston Theatre brings the castle room scenes (set at Chinon, France at Christmastime) to life in a visceral sense. You forget that you’re an observer, oftentimes; you begin to imagine you are somehow within the production, rather than without. I don’t know how they do it. It’s as if you’re King Henry inviting a troupe of players into your living room; and then you become one with the story – almost like watching a movie in 3D.
It’s hard not to get swept up by the flowing movement and dialog, the medieval atmosphere of the simple set – arched doorways, tapestry curtains, hanging chandeliers glowing dimly red… and enchanting period music.
I always enjoy the seamless choreography of moving props between scenes, as life moves on and characters come and go. For me, it’s an amazing accomplishment at each production, this art of turning the pages of the story and holding you fast within it.
The Lion in Winter is the work of playwright James Goldman. It was made into that movie classic that won him an Academy Award for best screenplay. Peter O’Toole (who died in 2013) also won an Oscar for his portrayal of King Henry II in the film, where he starred with Katherine Hepburn as Henry’s banished wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine.
John M. Manfredi as Henry II and Sandra Birch as Eleanor of Aquitaine [both have starred in previous WT productions] share the stage with Michigan State University Theatre students: Michael Barbour (John); Andrew Buck (Richard); Andrew Head (Geoffrey); Katie Maggart (Alais) and Blaine Mizer (King Phillip).
Director for The Lion in Winter John Lepard is also executive director for the theatre. The artistic director is Tony Caselli; Chris Purchis is managing director; Emily Sutton-Smith is development director. These are the folks who founded the theatre in 2006.
Lepard, with many theatre, TV and film credits, appeared in a movie I liked, Mr Art Critic (2007 by Brauer Productions). The film confirmed my feelings that I would never be comfortable being a professional critic of art of any genre.
I loved that movie, for one thing, because it was set in Michigan on our fantastic Mackinac Island. Second, I agree with the premise of the film—that art is the creative work of an individual, or individuals, and it is what it is. Some people may like it, some may not. The artist or artists are creating something that someone will like – or not. Who am I to judge that experience for them? I know there are lots of films that critics hated and I loved.
Third, of course, the director of Williamston Theatre appeared in that film; and I’ve been a fan of this actor/director since I first wrote an article about him for our local paper in 2008. Thank heavens we were introduced by another pair of Lepard fans. Otherwise, I can’t imagine what the last several years might have been like without this theatre being part of our life.
Williamston Theatre has become like family during this time. Now into our sixth year of attending most productions, we’re just plain fans. We’re fans of the theatre, the actors, the intimate settings, and the creativity of spirit that energizes us every time. Longtime WT followers tend to become addicted.
I guess you could say I go for that energy burst. Watching actors who love their work creating something amazing out of the words of a playwright: painting the room with their voices, expression, and movement; dancing the characters in the landscape of the set design, sometimes mere inches from me. All reels me into their world, into the painting, into the work of art.
While I’m not always in tune with the artists in every show, I always appreciate the entire effort, the body of work they’ve manifested for a few short weeks. Then, for it to disappear, never to be experienced in that way again, simply and always boggles my mind.
But, I love it. I love the opportunity to be charmed by these entertainers, who bring a touch of class to my cultural life with such moving plays as The Lion in Winter. In my mind, this one’s a keeper. Ha… if only you could.
Links for Lion in Winter/Mr Art Critic:
L.A. Acting Veteran Beckons Michigan Artists With New Williamston Theatre The story behind the founding of Williamston Theater by Rick Ballard