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Review: The Lion in Winter, a compelling classic from See 'Em On Stage

The drama runs Dec. 15-18 at Sanctuary Cultural Arts Center



Family relationships can be strained by decisions affecting inheritance, but when those assets include a kingdom, the crown and a princess, emotions can push people to rage, revenge, revolution and all-out war.

  In The Lion in Winter, England's King Henry II brings the Plantagenet family together for Christmas in Chinon, France, hoping to announce the successor to his throne. For the occasion, he has released his wife Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine from the tower, where she has been imprisoned for plotting against him. Their three sons, Richard the Lionheart, John and Geoffrey, all desperately want to become king.

  Director Christopher Bentivegna's three-hour production is filled with intrigue. The cast keeps audience members on the edge of their seats, guessing which character will triumph. Like a medieval soap opera, the Christmas Eve twists include Henry and Eleanor's on-again, off-again, love-hate relationship, as well as Henry's affair with 23-year-old French Princess Alais Capet, who already has been promised to Richard the Lionheart. John, Geoffrey and King Philip II of France conspire to overthrow the king while Henry considers locking up his sons forever so he can sire a new successor with Alais.

  Playwright James Goldman wrote extensively about history and in The Lion in Winter adopted a tone that is more ironic than tragic. His dialogue is crisp and witty, giving the actors plenty of room to play. The characters are smart and ambitious. (Goldman won an Academy Award for his screen adaption, a film that starred Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn.)

  See 'Em On Stage's production is staged in a converted Bywater church, where stained glass, arches, painted tapestries, drapes, candlelight and high ceilings lend the atmosphere of a medieval chateau. Seating in church pews is lateral, so the stage runs the length of the nave, allowing different scenes to run simultaneously. A low stone wall separates the audience from the actors. While Eleanor languishes in her chambers, the three princes plot and Henry flirts with Alais. Sara Bandurian's beautifully crafted costumes give the action another layer of authenticity.

  Kevin Murphy plays an aging yet virile Henry II, who once passionately loved Eleanor but now considers her a rival. "You are Medea to the teeth," he accuses her. The tempestuous Eleanor (Leslie Castay) is the stronger personality, though she still yearns for Henry. "You're still a marvel of a man," she pines. They spar over who should inherit the throne. The actors play off one another admirably, making the most of Goldman's complex characters.

  The show includes outstanding performances by Kali Russell, the coquettish princess Alais Capet and Eli Timm as the sniveling Prince John. Jake Wynne-Wilson embodies the very soul of the French King with an impeccable accent and excellent timing. But Castay holds the play together with her unceasing machinations.

  This classic drama is worth revisiting for its clever repartee and insights into the dynamics of power.

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