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The Lion in Winter: A royal feast

Wed, Sep 20th, 2000
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Monday, September 18, 2000

"The Lutheran tongues will be wagging," one theater goer said to me after seeing Commonweal Theatre's staging of The Lion in Winter.

He was right. The Lion in Winter is a medieval soap opera chock full of court intrigue, conniving monarchs and whining princes. Throw in some first rate cursing, a smattering of adultery, familial imprisonment and the hint of homosexuality, and you have the makings for a royal feast.

As is always the case, the Commonweal Theatre acting is superb. The Lion in Winter is a showcase for the talents of husband and wife actors, Hal Cropp and Kristen Underwood, as the feuding King Henry II and, his Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine.

The story takes place in 1183 with Henry II and Eleanor, whom Henry has banished from the court, reuniting for Christmas. Young Henry, the heir to the throne, has just died and the two monarchs battle over which of their three sons will be next in line to be King: Richard the warrior, the cunning Geofrey or the snivelling John.

Cropp's Henry II is a roaring, boastful, omnipotent emperor. At a time when marriages of alliance were common, and princesses were thrown into the pot in order to secure a treaty, Henry was probably the most powerful man on earth - and Cropp makes the audience feel that they are looking at him.

Equally fearless is Kristen Underwoood's Eleanor of Aquitaine. Quick witted, and cynical from her recent exile, she is Henry II's peer when it comes to court intrigue and manipulation. Underwood is crisp and on her mark with comedic one-liners that help keep the play grounded in the real world. One moment she is the proverbial dragon lady scheming against Henry's machinations, the next she is bringing the house down with a poignant quip. Underwood thrives on great roles like this, and Eleanor comes to life in her hands.

The three sons, all of whom have been trained to seek the crown, and do so with great ardor, create a series of sideshows around their two parents exploits. Eleanor says about them, "What a greedy little trinity you are."

Richard, played by Eric Knutson, is Eleanor's choice for heir. Henry II wants John, a born whiner, played with whimpering success by Mark Robinson. Torsten Hillhouse is the cold Geoffrey, "the smart one" as John refers to him.

When Henry II finds none of them worthy of the crown, he plans to sire another heir with his mistress Alais, played by Stela Burdt. Doug Megson finishes out the cast as Philip, the King of France.

It must be said that Commonweal has a tradition of dealing very creatively with the limitations of its small stage. This is especially true with The Lion in Winter. A sparse set, scene changes are choreographed with dance like movements as actors become stage hands transforming castle parapets into dining rooms and the like. Mark Huack's set design and Janis Martin's costuming, are superb.

The opening scene where the actors enter with votive candles in monkish procession and create a chandelier while snowflakes float down has a haunting quality about it that sets the stage for what follows. The audience has the feeling that they are going to a very cold place - and they are.

The play by John Goldman, which starred Katherine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole on the big screen, is a great tragedy in the Shakespearian tradition. Directed by Peter Rothstein, The Lion in Winter is a well crafted production, part historical drama, part soap opera.

It's also great entertainment. So let the tongues wag! Go see it.

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