The Lion in Winter is a family drama with stakes that make Lear look like a petty squabble. It’s 1183, and King Henry II of England rules a good chunk of Europe. His three sons all want the crown—and the hand of Alais, the French princess who is their father’s lover. To complicate matters, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Henry’s wife) has been released from her prison for the Christmas holiday. She maneuvers on behalf of her favorite son, Richard, while Henry hopes to leave the prize to his beloved John. Barbs are traded, plots are hatched, and swords are unsheathed. If nothing else, you’ll leave the play relieved by how (relatively) uneventful your family’s Christmases are.
If nothing else, you’ll leave the play relieved by how (relatively) uneventful your family’s Christmases are.
The Custom Made Theatre Company doesn’t have the resources to do a period piece in any style but campy. Fortunately, that’s exactly the style James Goldman’s script calls for. Grandiose and faux-poetic declarations abound. Whenever those get too cloying, we’re rescued by a dose of self-awareness. Eleanor acknowledges that her “scenes” with her sons are just that, and her especially bathetic monologue gets a round of applause from Henry. To one of Alais’s most melodramatic statements (“We’ve no Romans, and no Christians, but the rest of the arena—that we have”), Eleanor responds archly, “I’m so proud! I taught her all the rhetoric she knows.” The play reaches the height of comic absurdity when, one by one, all three princes end up hiding behind King Phillip of France’s tapestries to eavesdrop on conversations. (Phillip: “That’s what tapestries are for!”) Amidst all this self-conscious theatricality, the tacky costumes and set pieces seem right at home. So do the farcical aspects of Stuart Bosel’s staging, from brotherly shoving matches to cutesy, in-character scene changes.
The young characters have a cartoonish quality. The three sons are wonderfully distinct, but two-dimensional. Richard (Elliot Lieberman) is stiff and martial, with a low, ominous tone to many of his line deliveries. John (Luke Brady) is a slow-witted, whiny brat. (It’s easy to understand his brothers’ desire to punch him, which I shared.) Geoffrey (Kalon Thibodeaux) is the thinker of the family—bitter and scheming. King Phillip (Will Trichon) seems more real, a bland façade of charm concealing his clever attempts to play his foes off of each other. The put-upon Alais (Caitlin Evenson) also has hidden depths, her saccharine manner giving way to steely resolve when she delivers her ultimatum to Henry.
This is Henry’s and Eleanor’s play, and its best moments are when witty insults fly back and forth between the two. Eleanor (Catherine “Cat” Luedtke) excels at quick changes of mood, switching from adoring mother to fierce plotter in the blink of an eye. Her detachment and ability to comment on her own absurdities are a great source of humor. One moment she is roaring at Henry that she slept with his father. Without losing a beat, she then casually quips, “Well, what family doesn’t have its ups and down?” Henry (Steven Westdahl) has a similar facility for deadpan delivery and a straightforward gruffness that makes the rest of the cast seem affected. He can bellow and swing a sword with terrifying energy, but that kingliness doesn’t overshadow his role as a father. I could imagine him as a modern-day dad, cracking bad jokes and wondering how his kids turned out quite like they did. Minus the assassination plots, of course.
The Lion in Winter
Custom Made Theatre Company, San Francisco