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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
The Lion in Winter
By Elyse Sommer
And there's more. This Queen is not without her own checkered history. Her first marriage to the King of France was annulled so she could marry King Henry, whose own father may have been an early bed partner. The Henry-Eleanor marriage has been rocked by his flagrant infidelity, her own indiscretions, as well as her attempt to help her three sons seize the throne. This failed coup led to Henry's keeping her imprisoned in an English castle, with only special occasion visits to the family palace in Chinon, France. It's during one such occasion, Christmas 1183, that James Goldman's play, The Lion in Winter unfolds.
As might be expected, the holiday in the dark and cavernous family manse (nicely designed by Brett J. Banakis and atmospherically lit by Solomon Weissbard) is hardly more peaceful than George and Martha's alcohol fueled get-together with a young couple new to their campus town in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? This is more than a vicious parlor game of "Hump the Hostess," but a game of "Nab the Crown" with its attendant international implications.
At any rate, there are enough explosive situations here for several plays. The link to an actual dynasty, the Plantagenets, provides The Lion in Winter with the cache of a drama with historic significance. But this is decidedly history lite and breezy, given that James Goldman told his story of family dysfunction heightened by political ambition with witty contemporary dialogue.
While the play wasn't an instant hit— the premiere Broadway production lasted only a few months. But this all changed with the 1968 film version starring Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor, Peter O'Toole as Henry, and Anthony Hopkins as the gay son Richard (yet another situation to add to the arsenal of family secrets). While neither the Broadway premiere (with Rosemary Harris and Robert Preston) or the 1999 revival (with Stockard Channing and Lawrence Fishburn), caught fire, the star dust of the film did rub off on the play and transformed it into a much produced crowd pleaser at regional theaters.
The pleasure evinced by the crowd at the opening night performance of the Berkshire Theater Group's The Lion in Winter production certainly proves that the appeal of an evening providing a cross between a dramatic history lesson and a Spamalot-like comedy is undiminished. Under Robert Moss's able direction, this latest round of medieval family confrontations and power plays, is handsomely staged and performed by a capable if not memorably compelling cast.
Jayne Atkinson is a fine actress who brings grace and elegance to the complex role of the Queen who still loves her faithles spouse. Treat Williams's Henry is full of vitality. The pair interact well, and toss off some of the insults that are part of their love-hate interchanges with aplomb. In a typically sharp example he accuses her of still being too available to other lovers with "I marvel at you, after all these years, still like a democratic drawbridge going down for everybody"and she responds with a wry "At my age, there's not much traffic any more." That said I couldn't help wishing Atkinson were once again paired with her Off-Stage husband Michael Gill as she was for Candida at this theater five years ago.
Of the three get-the-kingdom fixated sons, Tommy Schrider, a Berkshire theater Group veteran, stands out as Geoffrey the manipulative middle son. Another popular Berkshire Theater Group actor, Tara Franklin, is persuasive as the young woman who prefers the King to his offspring, but she somehow doesn't make quite as strong an impression as she has in previous performances with this company. Matthew Stucky is rather too stiff to make the most of the French King who's arrived to insist on the fulfillment of the marriage his father arranged as well as to rekindle his relationship with the in denial Richard.
My quibbles notwithstanding, if you're looking for an amusing and enlightening visit with the battling Plantagenets. They're an ueber-dysfunctional family but then as Atkinson's Eleanor in one of her pungent asides says "every family has its ups and downs" and Goldman's smartly written script makes it fun to watch this family try to navigate theirs.
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