Lion in Winter is a big fat medieval soap opera mixed with a verbal version of War of the Roses. It"s 1183, and King Henry II and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, exchange more oral barbs than are found in any episode of Married with Children. At the moment, the issue is Henry"s successor. Eleanor wants Richard (as in The Lionheart) to have the throne, but Henry"s favorite is 16-year-old John (as in Robin Hood"s Prince John). Poor middle child Geoffrey is completely forgotten, a fact he is quick to remind people of whenever the opportunity arises. Add to this the arrival of newly crowned Phillip, the king of France, to tidy up the issue of his sister, Alais, who was to be married to one of the princes (but through her lengthy fosterage has found her way into Henry"s bed), and all sorts of feudal fiascoes take flight.
(Left to Right) Jim Butz, and James Gale in James Goldman's "The Lion in Winter" at the IRT
The script itself is a masterpiece of cerebral sparring and put-downs. Eleanor is a miserable, conniving old bitch, and she and her heavy-footed, blustering Henry delight in seeing who can cut the other deeper with intricate wit. Their children are power-hungry double-crossers, with no concept of the word "allegiance." This is not your ordinary history play. The show was popularized by its 1968 movie version starring Peter O"Toole and Katharine Hepburn, and some of their characterizations can"t help but leak through into its stage version now. Still, I was happily impressed with the cast: James Gale as Henry II; Christine McMurdo-Wallis as Eleanor; Remi Sandri as the intense soldier and eldest son, Richard; Christopher Gurr as the invisible middle child, Geoffrey, clinging to the coattails of whoever seemed poised to win; and local wunderkind Blaine Hogan as the petulant and spoiled John. Vanessa Daniels even got her chance to shine when Alais finally takes a stand. Jim Butz as Phillip seemed rather uninteresting next to the rest of the cast. The set, by Robert M. Koharchick, was as dark, complicated and labyrinthine as the script, and the incorporation of booming music from Gregg Coffin, while a bit imposing, helped set the appropriate mood. Lion in Winter, directed by Tim Ocel, continues through March 8 at the Indiana Repertory Theatre; call 635-5252 for reservations.