.A Jewel of a Lion in Winter

Almost more lying and cheating than a presidential campaign

Power is the only fact, bellows an aging Henry II in playwright James Goldman‘s The Lion in Winter, a searing portrait of a scheming royal family. Comparisons with the current US government spring to mind watching these dysfunctional conspirators—the King of England, his imprisoned wife Eleanor, and their three grown sons, each determined to become the next king.

Goldman’s provocative plot in the new Jewel Theatre production is packed solid with lying and cheating from top to bottom. As her dowry, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Julie James) has brought Henry (Lawrence Hecht) half of France. Much time and many children later, Henry, now 50, keeps Eleanor imprisoned, releasing her once a year at Yuletide .

The play opens on Christmas Eve with Henry, determined to appoint an heir before he dies, trying to make peace among his three sons—treacherous Geoffrey (Andrew Davids), military mastermind Richard (Shaun Carroll), and the youngest John (Travis Rynders) who is both the dim bulb of the family and his father’s favorite.

Henry’s new paramore Alais (Michelle Drexler) and her brother the king of France (Andre Amarotico), have joined the household for Christmas. They all rage, at Henry and each other, jockeying for position and favor, while plotting for power.

Yes, it sounds familiar, which is why a play set in the year 1183 feels fresh. Think Succession with a splash of Larry David. Lion offers an engrossing dramatic premise, and Goldman’s play (his adaptation for the film won an Oscar) is outrageously funny when you least expect it. “What shall we hang? The holly or each other?”

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This Lion in Winter showcases outstanding visuals. While the Jewel has always excelled at stage decor, I’d call this set by designer Ron Gasparinetti one of the best I’ve seen in the Colligan. Heavy stone walls, towering fireplace, curved stairway into an intimate dressing room, all are convincing and detailed by tapestry and oversized wall hangings below huge wooden rafters. The players are given many locations for intimate plotting, bedding, and lots of Mummy-why-didn’t-you-love-me confessionals.

Each cast member has some solid moments. As always, Shaun Carroll knows how to hold his turf and as Henry’s young love, Michelle Drexler is gorgeous to look at. But the show belongs to Julie James, a glorious Eleanor, clad by B. Modern in gold-trimmed satin and velvet gowns befitting a medieval queen.

James understands exactly what Eleanor has to lose, as well as gain. As the sons each come to seek her counsel, she reassures each of his legacy and his role in undercutting Henry. But as with today’s media, it’s hard to know what to believe. Do these characters all really hate each other, or love each other in some little-visited part of their hearts? The smart script forces us to figure out what even the characters may not know.

Strategies unfold swiftly. James unleashes her superpowers of quick change artistry. She coos sweetly to one son, while betraying him with another. Her invective gives off sparks. Does she mean any of it? Does she hate the king who has abandoned her? Or love him enough to try anything? Hints of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf perfume the verbal battles between Eleanor and Henry. A few whiffs of Camelot as well.

James lets us marvel at the shocking and juicy transformations of the aging queen as she lures each son into striking distance of their father. As webs of intrigue tighten, her Eleanor catches full fire. James’ performance is a triumph.

Director Susan Myer Silton‘s motivations often remain a mystery, especially in the ensemble scenes. But coherence of dialogue is bound to smooth out as the performance run continues. A captivating production. Don’t miss!

The Lion in Winter, by James Goldman
A Jewel Theatre Company production
At the Colligan Theater, through February 25
jeweltheatre.net

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