Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Lion in Winter"

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note: entire contents copyright 2006 by Carl A. Rossi


by James Goldman
directed by Eleanor Holdridge

Henry II, King of England … Curt Hostetter
Princess Alais Capet … Devin Preston
Prince John … Lucas Blondheim
Prince Geoffrey … Demetrios Saites
Prince Richard … Christopher Gottschalk
Eleanor of Aquitaine … Lisa Harrow
Philip Capet, King of France … Tom Story

James Goldman’s THE LION IN WINTER is a fascinating shell game where the late Mr. Goldman plucked a page from English history, seasoned it with black humor and served it in numerous styles: the year is 1183, and the shrewd King Henry II and his cunning wife Eleanor of Aquitaine each want a son on the throne. Henry has chosen John, their youngest, to succeed him whereas Eleanor favors their eldest Richard the Lionheart; Geoffrey, the middle son, plays both sides in his own bid for the crown. No doubt, while writing LION in the mid-1960s, Mr. Goldman was influenced by Mr. Albee’s WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? with its own husband-and-wife battles but the Messrs. Feydeau, Wilde and Simon, not to mention the Absurdists, can also be glimpsed just below the surface. How, then, does one approach THE LION IN WINTER? Play it as epic realism (as did the 1968 film version) and you’ll scratch around in vain for Shakespeare. Play it as anachronistic vaudeville and the clowns will collide with the serious moments. Woo Melpomene, and there is Thalia sticking out her tongue at you. In my mind’s eye I see Mr. Goldman setting out to write a History but then having domestic fun with it, thus Henry and Eleanor clearly see the absurdity as well as the necessity of their machinations but slug it out, anyway. I suggest that the kaleidoscopic plot be kept front and center and should a bubble of comedy form, to guide it to the surface, play it until it pops and return at once to the business at hand --- and it doesn’t hurt to remember that THE LION IN WINTER is also a middle-aged love story between a man and a woman forever bound up in one another.

Happily, the Northern Stage production has the right balance of light and dark thanks to Eleanor Holdridge’s sly, pokerfaced direction and a clever-clever cast that lets the laughter fall where it may so that the audience easily bubbles over yet another twist or moved whenever King and Queen let down their guard. Curt Hostetter’s Henry starts out in drawing room mode but soon roars his way into the Dark Ages and Lisa Harrow’s Eleanor pounces on the evening and charmingly claims it for her own (but, then, Eleanor also has the best quips). Christopher Gottschalk, Demetrios Saites and Lucas Blondheim are well-contrasted as My Three Sons (respectively, the Bully, the Brainiac and the Brat), Tom Story swishes amusingly as King Philip of France without being offensive about it and Devin Preston lends the necessary gravity to Alais, Philip’s sister and Henry’s mistress, the pawn with the most to lose. James Wolk has designed a fairytale set of blue, black and grey and though the scene changes are clumsily executed, at least Rachel Kurland has dressed the crew appropriately, i.e. as bumpkins. All in all, an entertaining evening, correctly done.

"The Lion in Winter" (2-19 February)
1 (802) 296-7000

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide