Beefeaters at Christmas

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Nobody would have objected too vehemently if James Goldman had titled his 1966 drama “The Lions in Winter” instead of granting the leonine sobriquet to King Henry II alone. For the protagonist of The Lion in Winter has not only reached the winter of his life, at age 50, in 1183, he has sired the formidable Richard the Lionheart, fated to dethrone him – and it is Christmas as Henry attempts to sort out matters of succession.

As a seasonal gift, Henry has released his queen from prison, the legendary Eleanor of Aquitaine. She was not incarcerated because of a lover’s spat, as we find out soon enough in the current CPCC Theatre production, for Goldman has given Eleanor carnivorous teeth of her own and a leonine appetite for power that hasn’t been cowed by her confinement. Her husband’s carnal appetites are now being sated by Princess Alais of France, so there’s an extra edge of jealousy as Eleanor attempts to aggravate the king – and undisguised delight when she succeeds. While Henry wields the power of the throne, his choice as heir apparent, youngest son Geoffrey, is the weakest of his three sons, both in mind and body. Political cunning is the special province of Geoffrey, the middle son, while the Lionheart, Eleanor’s favorite, is the inheritor of Henry’s military prowess.

Ironically, the two prime candidates for the throne, Richard and John, have little interest in the intrigue of royal politics. So the plotting is largely instigated by Henry, Eleanor, and Geoffrey. The Princess Alais is the pawn in this chess match, and the inexperienced but opportunistic King Philip of France complicates the gamesmanship.

All of the roles are fairly juicy here, and director Tom Hollis gets beautifully sustained performances from the two central antagonists. James K. Flynn is mighty and foxy when Henry is in the ascendant and wearily poignant when his family’s treachery overwhelms him. On the other hand, Polly Adkins resurrects her venomous Bette Davis mode when she is most lethal as Eleanor, shuttling over to Vivien Leigh when she is broken. The admirable stamina we see from both Flynn and Adkins is sorely needed in a production that runs over two-and-a-half hours with intermission. More importantly, these two vets nail every bon mot on those rare occasions when Goldman is sharply concise.

From a historical standpoint, Byron J. Miller is about right as a Richard six years away from seizing the crown, but I think Goldman might have asked for a little more of a graceful swagger and a little less blockheadedness. Everything about Matt Kenyon’s Geoffrey pleases me except his physicality – an outbreak of malign facial hair on that smooth face could do wonders. Then we would only have the matter of Heidi O’Hare’s costume designs to contend with. When it came to the younger brothers, O’Hare seems to have forgotten that she wasn’t designing for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The problem is greatly compounded in Ian Easterbrook’s portrayal of John, whom Hollis apparently sees as a peevish 12-year-old.

Remarkably transformed from his last outing in Rope, Justin Younts nicely captures the coiled reserve of the French monarch, while Poppy Pritchett succeeds in making Alais more than a pale ingénue opposite the majestic Eleanor. James Duke’s lighting design, while lacking subtlety in its cues, is spot-on for every mood, and Duke’s set designs are the most impressive I’ve seen at Pease Auditorium since its renovation.

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