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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
The Lion in Winter
As the machinations of each family member proceeds from one explosive climax to another, Henry's three sons plot, scheme, and deceive one another in a constant barrage of almost literal back-stabbing, all under their mother's watchful eye. Of course, the ever resourceful Eleanor, temporarily released from her imprisonment and home for the Christmas holidays, proves without losing much time that she can out-plot, out-scheme and deceive them all in her quest to keep Henry in tow.
Not easily out-foxed or out-witted, Henry flaunts his power and his young French mistress Alais around the court only to learn from Philip, King of France, that he must relinquish her in marriage to his eldest son, fulfilling an old treaty requirement between the nations.
The whirlwind of vicious verbal assaults at times becomes a little too relentless to be believed, but is nevertheless a theatrical miracle of heightened reality thanks to Goldman's brittle prose. There is also a pomposity and pretentiousness to the proceedings that tend to make you think you are watching a dramatization of events with some historical relevance and importance instead of a clever contemporizing of human follies and universal flaws in a remote and distant setting. It is just this arrogance, with a sprinkle of salacious humor that makes The Lion in Winter such good theater if not good history.
As a man capable of many loves, Henry (Sherman Howard) changes his bedside manner as often as he switches favors from one son to another. It is amusing to see him dash from a passionate caress with the beautiful, youthfully seductive Alais (Laura Campbell) into the loving clutches and fangs of Eleanor (Lisa Harrow.) Howard's empowering countenance, even his scruffy beard, serves him well in this house of royal intrigues. Robust and strong looking, Howard never loses sight of the intrinsic sense of humor that invigorates Henry's character and that also keeps him sharp in his darkest moments.
As Eleanor of Aquitaine, Harrow gives a splendid performance in her first season with The Shakespeare Theatre of NJ. Enabled by a notable career both in the U.K. (Royal Shakespeare Theatre) and in the US, she makes it quite clear, as Eleanor manipulates Henry and maneuvers her feeble and insecure sons, that this queen is both a viper and a vamp. And Eleanor's oft-quoted line, "Well, what family doesn't have its ups and downs," has never, I suspect, been delivered with more savory bite.
Although he looks like an unwashed chimney sweep and behaves like a dunce, Colby Chambers is a hoot as John the youngest son. Devin Norik let all of the ignored middle son Jeffrey's resentfulness show on his face. He was, indeed, cunning, but perhaps not quite as cunningly deceptive as was Sean Hudock as Philip. Tom Pelphrey is sturdy and manly as the oldest son Richard whose exposed homosexual affair with Philip nevertheless merely adds only one more cause for alarm along with all the other eight hundred and twelve or so traumas that happen with lightning frequency during the event-filled two and one-half hours.
Michael Scheikardt's handsome set design, enhanced by Michael Giannitti's lighting is notable for its circular raised stage, the artistic use of curtains, a high stone-wall backdrop and a pair of sliding partitions. Hugh Hanson's costumes circa 1183 are predominantly earth tones and certainly in accord with the earthiness of the text.
The Lion in Winter starring Rosemary Harris and Robert Preston was not well-received by the major critics or the public when it opened on Broadway in 1966, chalking up a meager 92 performances. An up-and-coming Christopher Walken played King Philip. A Roundabout Theatre revival in 1999 starring Stockard Channing and Laurence Fishburne played a prescribed 93 performances. The lauded 1968 film version with Katherine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole was credited with having some of the best dialogue ever heard on the screen. Over the years, the play has become increasingly popular with regional theatres, even allowing some critics to reconsider what they may have said in their overly harsh their original assessment.