After watching the wrangling and intriguing of King Henry II, striving to bend his competing heirs and rival queens to his will, people are unlikely to think of The Lion in Winter as anything but a drama — particularly when his chief adversary is the legendary Eleanor of Aquitaine. Energies and passions between family members, including the visiting King Philip II of France (Queen Eleanor's stepson) are as complex and fissionable as any drama written since Friedrich Schiller's Don Carlos. Yet James Cartee, who directs the production now running at Seeds on 36th Street, is reaffirming that he isn't ordinary people. The self-proclaimed Intergalactic Peacekeeper — and founder — of Citizens of the Universe sees the script as a comedy.
That's a tough sell when we reach the summit of the English king's towering rages, but Cartee does have a point. Aspects of the plotline are certainly viewable through a sitcom lens — though you'll readily distinguish the strife between Henry and Eleanor from the squabbles that enlivened The Honeymooners — and playwright James Goldman sprinkles some unmistakable zingers along the way. Of course, the absolute topper, Eleanor's "It's 1183, and we're barbarians!" winks right through the fourth wall.
While the scale and seriousness of the issues between Mr. and Mrs. Plantagenet dwarf those between the Kramdens, the chemistry is curiously similar: Henry blusters, brags and hotly rages; Eleanor coolly deflates. Further narrowing the gap is the setting. For those of you who haven't explored Seeds on 36th, it's a far cry from Henry's castle in Chinon (southeast of Paris), where the king is spending the holidays, furloughing Eleanor from prison as a Christmas gift.
Succession to Henry's kingdom is the key issue here, since he's not inclined to go the Lear route and split it in three. Eleanor wants the crown to go to her dear Richard the Lionheart, the eldest and most valorous of the sons, while Henry wants it to go to his youngest and favorite son, Prince John, a teenager who is conspicuously weak-willed and weak-minded. The middle son, Geoffrey, has signed on to be John's chancellor and advisor so long as Henry holds the upper hand. When the winds start to shift, Geoffrey will cut a deal with anyone.
Short-term, Henry holds sway. The crown will pass to whomever he chooses. But long-term, Richard figures to snatch the crown whether or not his mummy lives to see the day — unless dad subverts the natural right-makes-right calculus by putting sonny to death.
But why must any of this be decided now as the royals decorate the Yuletide tree? Well, the visiting King Philip is insisting that after a long, long time of vacillating, Henry should make up his mind about his sister Alais, betrothed at the age of 8 to be the queen of England as part of a barbarically civilized territorial swap that netted Henry the Vexin, whatever that was, to go along with the Aquitaine. Unless Henry fulfills the terms of his 15-year-old agreement with France, marrying his 23-year-old mistress or handing her off to England's future king, Philip wants his Vexin back. More than his sister.
So besides the short- and long-term considerations, lust is bumping up against politics. Outside Henry's castle in France — notwithstanding the fact that we're at Seeds on 36th — we're to imagine that King Philip has an army that could conceivably tip the balance of power toward a spurned English heir. So there are many plots and treacheries to be discussed, including a possible junket to Rome, where the Pope might deign to annul the holy matrimony between Henry and Eleanor.
Above all, these Plantagenets delight in hurting one another, so their humor is salted with malice. Late in the game, Philip proves that he also has the knack. Even Alais, so lamblike at the outset, sprouts some fangs toward the end.
As much as we need a Christmas tree on this set to make it imaginable for Henry to bring up the Pope in conversation, we desperately need Deana Pendragon's richly evocative costumes to help us believe these royals are who they say they are — and not some cruelly twisted distortion of Married With Children. The regal trappings are especially helpful in maintaining the gravitas of Tom Ollis as he dives headlong into the tirades of Henry, but you'll also find that Prince John's dopey pageboy costume gives Robert Brafford extra comical dimensions to play with.
We can admire Brafford for just appearing onstage with that ludicrous dress, let alone simpering, pouting, and flopping in it so zestfully. Cartee’s courage is subtler, casting Dean Messer as King Philip. Instead of a man attempting to combine elegance and effeteness in a callow king, we get a transgendered person merely acting more manly and allowing the golden costume to do the rest. There’s more to Messer’s performance than just that, of course, but the ease of it makes you wonder why Cartee’s crossover casting choice is so rare.
Brafford as John, Michael Anderson as Geoffrey, and Shane Brayton as Richard are probably the least brotherly trio I've seen as Henry's sons, not a bad thing as they plot and connive against one another. Watching Brafford skipping merrily around the stage when, in spite of his cowardice and brainlessness, he seems to be back on top of the heap would be less comical if Anderson's coldness and Brayton's arrogance hadn't already made Geoffrey and Richard such unsavory alternatives.
One by one, they parade into Philip's boudoir in the first of two climactic scenes, each one bent on ruthlessly cutting out the other two. Yet with all the hiding behind curtains, it does play out like farce. With the heart and humanity drained out of the siblings' conflict, it's almost impossible for Ollis to break our hearts — as Peter O'Toole did in the 1968 film adaptation of this 1966 drama — when he realizes he has lost all his boys.
All the heart in this production channels instead into the love triangle, and there is plenty of it. I found it easy to wish Alais happiness with Henry because Mandy Kendall makes her so unequivocal in her love and admiration for Henry, old as he may be, and in her detestation of the brothers. Yet she is schooled by the brothers over the course of the holidays, learning that she'll need to stand up for herself to survive their plotting, and this newfound spine ultimately makes her dearer to Henry.
The excellence of Ollis and Meredith McBride as man and wife isn't limited to their love-hate marital relationship or the vicious glee they take in wounding each other. Sharing a tempest-tossed history, they're just as convincing in their camaraderie as suffering, disappointed parents.
Ollis is bearish, loud, and — thanks to the necessity of turning off the air conditioning system during the performance — sweaty in in his kingly vulgarity, restlessly prowling his lair in search of a satisfying legacy. Yet it's McBride who is the most majestic as Eleanor, cool and witty with her rejoinders and scorching in her bitterness. Watching her is like seeing one of those imposing portraits in the National Gallery come to life, still slightly two-dimensional as she advances toward us, yet unmistakably immortal as she shoots her barbs.