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THEATER The Lion in Winter
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Theater Editor

Playwright: James Goldman

At: Writers' Theatre,

325 Tudor Court, Glencoe

Phone: 847-242-6000; $40-$65

Runs through: Aug. 3

Read more story below....

I'm going to be an unpopular critic, if that's not a redundancy: I've decided The Lion in Winter is a bad play. Yes, it's a great play for actors, with two scenery-chewing lead roles and five choice supporting roles, and it has a type of wit many audiences enjoy. But it's too arch by half; a highly presentational, thoroughly self-aware piece that revels in its own cleverness.

To remind you: It's set at Christmas 1183 at the court of English king Henry II. Henry is joined by his mistress, three sons, French king Phillip and long-estranged wife—the powerful and rich Eleanor of Aquitaine—released from house arrest for the occasion. For two hours-plus they intrigue about which son will marry Henry's mistress ( who's also Phillip's sister ) and who will inherit the English throne. The play ends as politically unsettled as it began after numerous plots and counterplots, all of them variations on a scheme.

Problem is, there's not a hint of the 12th century about any of it, save for the sets and costumes. Author James Goldman's characters are completely modern. It's OK for them to speak modern English and affect more-or-less modern behavior; but they also think in modern ways. Goldman makes no attempt, as Robert Bolt did in another English history play, A Man for All Seasons—to illuminate an historic world view or the politics of the era. Example: Henry and Eleanor's religious skepticism—doubting the existence of God—isn't historically truthful. Goldman doesn't even hint that Henry was far more French than English, spending most of his life in the French holdings which came with the Norman ( French ) conquest of England in 1066.

All of this is not the fault of the Writers' Theatre production, which certainly is decent even if it didn't blow me away. Under Rick Snyder's direction, the show is like a train that starts slowly and gathers speed. Once the extended exposition is out of the way, the show chugs at a good clip. And the straw-scattered scenery ( Jack Magaw ) , lighting ( J. R. Lederle ) and costumes ( Nan Zabriskie ) create a handsome environment. But there's not much Snyder can do about plot repetitions or, more difficult still, the repetitive emotional beats. Sometimes the production just looks and sounds stagy. A master of contemporary realism, Snyder doesn't seem completely comfortable with stylized costume drama.

During the early going, Michael Canavan's Henry II is more blustery and loud than distinct, but eventually convinces as a man who relishes being 'a king, alive and 50 all at once.' In a too-rare return to Chicago, Shannon Cochran makes a cagey and charming Eleanor. Among the capable and mostly familiar supporting cast, Michael Fagin as Phillip is a new face with interesting looks and energy.

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