Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Lion in Winter"

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"The Lion in Winter"

by James Goldman
Directed by Ronni Marshak

John.....Matthew Bretschneider
Geoffrey...........Justin Budinoff
Richard...................Ian Dowell
Philip...................Bob Mussett
Henry.................Jerry Robbins
Alais.........Elizabeth Wightman
Eleanor.............Pauline Wright

The first Plantagenets were the ultimate dysfunctional family. Up for grabs when the patriarch (Henry II) dies are England, Scotland, Wales, and half of France, and there are three squabbling sons after the prize. It's Christmas in the English half of France, the new, young French king has come to renegotiate several borders, and Mum Eleanor's been let out of jail --- Henry had her mewed up in the castle-town of Sarum near Stonehenge --- for a holiday family reunion. Of course, the French king's sister has been both engaged to Henry's eldest son (Richard Lionheart) but for several years Henry's loving, beloved mistress. So, expect a hot time in the old French castle of Chinon, since "Of course he has a knife; we All have knives! It's 1183, and we're all barbarians!"

Yes, there is an analogy to "Dynasty" here, and to a master's chess-game with the map of France as the board. The kids cooperate and betray, fiefdoms and armies are traded and re-traded, and that grizzled old lion (Jerry Robbins) takes the measure of the new French king (Bob Mussett) by standing toe to toe and roaring. Whether the roar betrays power or bluster is always in doubt, but age and treachery will win over youth and enthusiasm every time --- as Pauline Wright's Eleanor of Aquitaine demonstrates again and again. Poor Elizabeth Wightman as Alais --- the only character in this whole embroglio who says what she means and loves without complication --- finds herself an admittedly important pawn, with most of the best lines in everyone else's mouths. True love loses here!

As the kids, Ian Dowell is the stalwart Richard, Matthew Bretschneider the 16-year-old brat John, and Justin Budinoff the mischievous swing-vote Geoffrey. Their fawning hopes of favor from dad are betrayed by hope of help from Philip or Eleanor at the flip of an alliance, and it's only when the swords unsheathe that emotion and ambition come to terms. Mussett's Philip grows as he blandly betrays his old homosexual fling with Richard to try to get what he wants, but Elizabeth Wightman's Alais is simply unwilling to deny her own love of Henry. It's a complicated story, isn't it?

This is maybe the first show by the Hovey Players that seems bigger than the playspace in which it takes place. Set and lighting designer John MacKenzie and set-painter Michelle Boll have made their traditional miracles --- the painted walls are solid stone, with perfectly perspectived alcoves and details that must be felt to betray their flatness. The set is as solid as Carolyn Fuchs' furniture, and the period music chosen by Cindy Lavery and Christopher Montgomery also adds to the 10th century detail.

When the actors take the stage, however, a weird ambivalence --- one that is inherent in the script --- jars against that setting. This is a play that could be rehearsed for a year without developing a clear reconcilliation between the historical background and the very contemporary snap of the incredibly witty dialogue. On opening night, Jerry Robbins' Henry got much too loud much too soon, while Pauline Wright's Eleanor betrayed her obvious love for her estranged husband even in the midst of betraying his every ploy..

What director Ronni Marshak did catch, however, is the fickle fluctuation in every character between contemporary human emotion and historical accuracy. These are first of all people and only later monarchs or proto-monarchs. They carve each other up with quick, deadly back-biting words before they resort to knives and swords. And Marshak refuses to take sides. Henry insists his ultimate aim --- the preservation of the largest European empire since Charlemagne's --- is worth the sacrifice of anyone he loves, and only Shakespeare's Henry V and Henry VI can prove him right or wrong.
The one thing certain is that Christmas in Chinon is a exciting experience!


"The Lion In Winter" (18 January - 2 February)
Abbott Memorial Theater, 9 Spring Street, WALTHAM, MA
(781) 893-9171

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide