The Canongate Theatre Company will present itself to Chicago audiences Dec. 28 with its premiere production, The Lion in Winter, by James Goldman. Lion, which opened on Broadway 30 years ago, will open on N. Broadway at the Profiles Theatre, running through Jan. 25.
Set in 1183 France at the Christmas court of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, the show is a contemporary yet historic comic drama. It exposes a cheerful holiday gathering which decomposes into a series of family power struggles, bringing to the surface secret passions, resentments and jealousies. The love between the well-matched king and queen has become completely submerged by a sea of piercing banter and rapier remarks, propelled by the reality of their aging.
Lion is directed by Jeffrey Baumgartner, also artistic director for the Borealis Theatre Company and the Fox Valley Shakespeare Festival. Baumgartner also designed much of the sets. He recently starred in Playing With Fire; After Frankenstein with Canongate founder, company manager, and producer John Westby, where an alliance between the artists and the idea for Canongate was born.
Westby , himself a Chicago actor for more than four years, says that the company is primarily "actor centered and actor focused," and explains, "The production coalesced and the company has formed as a result of the desire to do the production. Right now we don't know how we want to be organized."
As for the name, Westby says that he found it in a dream. " I was looking for something that is rather medievil, old, established ... basically because that's the kind of work that attracts me--like the theatrical canon of works that aren't produced very often...I woke up one morning and I had the two words next to each other." Although Baumgartner considers himself a part of the new company, he is unaware of his status as a Canongate co-founder, a label that Chicago media has referred to him as. Westby is responsible for picking the production and most of the actors, supplying funding, and hiring Baumgartner as director, which was a new working structure for the director.
Some actors are from Baumgartner's Borealis, a company from the Chicago suburbs. Baumgartner noted that Canongate, by making an effort to be part of the Chicago non-Equity theatre movement, proves that Chicago's suburban actors can create on as high a level as city ones do, especially considering that the task of each actor in Lion is to be hyper-aware of multilayered game playing, while being honest in every moment. He says that Canongate is made up of "suburban actors laying the foundation for a resident regional theatre company."
Of Lion, Baumgartner says "It's always been one of my favorite shows... What's fascinating for me dealing with such large scale historical characters is that they each had so much to do independently . . . in history, and they appear together in the context of a dysfunctional family drama."
For more information about The Lion in Winter, running through Jan. 25, at the Profiles Theatre, please refer to the Canongate Theatre Company regional listing on Playbill On-Line.
--By Blair Glaser