Typically, when you’re an actor performing in a play, you want the director to be as familiar with the work as possible. But in the case of Threshold Repertory Theatre’s upcoming production of James Goldman’s 1961 play The Lion in Winter, it turns out that the best approach was a completely fresh one. Director Paul Rolfes, though an experienced actor and director, had never read the play before he was brought in to direct it. In fact, he was only brought in after lead actor Paul O’Brien’s original choice couldn’t do it.

“Paul O’Brien has been wanting to do this play for a while at Threshold,” Rolfes says, “and he originally had a different director in mind who couldn’t do it, and that director referred me to them.”

On the surface, that might seem like a recipe for disaster, but once Rolfes read the play, he fell in love with it.

“They called me and sent me over the script, and I really liked it,” Rolfes says. “It was a play that was well-written, and I felt like it would be fun to direct. It’s always good to direct something that you know is well-written because a lot of your work is already done for you at that point.”

Goldman’s play is set in the year 1183. It’s Christmas at Henry II of England’s castle in Chinon, in the Anjou province of modern France, set during the Angevin Empire. The play opens with the arrival of Henry’s wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, whom he has had imprisoned since 1173. That arrival sparks some heated and passionate verbal fireworks between Eleanor and Henry, and sets off several rounds of gamesmanship between Henry, Eleanor, their three sons Richard, Geoffrey, and John, and their Christmas Court guest, the King of France.

It’s all very Shakespearian, with lots of political intrigue and betrayal, to the extent that people often think that the play was written by the Bard himself, especially given the characters and setting. But the real center of The Lion in Winter is the dialogue between Henry II and Eleanor. They love and hate one another, hurling creatively-barbed invective and passionate mash notes at one another throughout the play. That back-and-forth is what attracted Rolfes to the production.

“There’s this tender and loving but also vicious relationship between Eleanor and Henry,” he says. “They have these witty lines back and forth to one another that are really cutthroat, but at the same time there are these moments of sincerity where you see that they really love each other. I found the relationships to be very interesting.”

When Rolfes joined the production, Paul O’Brien’s Henry II was the only role that had been cast, and Rolfes knew he had to find just the right Eleanor. He believes that, with Jennifer Metts, he’s done just that.

“She had a great grasp of Eleanor from the beginning,” Rolfes says. “There’s this really interesting rapport between her and Paul. There’s this ability to know where the affection is, where the tender moments are and tap into this slinging of arrows. Jennifer came in to audition and she had it. She understood the rhythm, the pacing, the dynamic between the two characters, the connection was there from the first read. It was easy to see the rest of the play with those two in it.”

Rolfes says that he’s not a big believer in the word “chemistry,” but Metts and O’Brien have some kind of instinctive connection that makes their pairing perfect.

“I feel like I was very fortunate because that relationship is the play,” he says. “It’s Henry and Eleanor. If they don’t have that connection or find the rhythm of this back-and-forth, then that’s going to be very hard to cultivate. In rehearsal, we keep referring back to Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn’s relationship in On Golden Pond. It’s very much like that, how it’s almost like why they love each other so much because they can each handle one another. They’re worthy opponents and they love that about each other. It’s almost like foreplay for them in a really weird sense. The dynamic between those two has to be there, and there’s only so much you can do as the director to foster that if there’s not that original spark.”

Now that Rolfes has spent weeks immersed in a play he wasn’t familiar with beforehand, it’s worth asking if he’s seen the 1968 Oscar-winning film version starring Peter O’Toole, Anthony Hopkins and, coincidentally enough, Katharine Hepburn, which is arguably better known than the original play. Not only has he not seen it, Rolfes says he’s made it a point not to once he got the directing job.

“I won’t see it until after the play opens,” he says. “I don’t want to be informed as to what they did or how they saw it, because you start to bring that into rehearsals. I wanted to go in fresh, without any preconceptions, because I can look at people without looking for Anthony Hopkins or Katharine Hepburn. When you go in fresh, new moments can pop up and that’s exciting, and it allows the process to happen without any filter.”

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