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Warrior queen: Michelle Summerlin-Yergan as Eleanor of Acquitane.

Battle Royal
By Kathryn Ceceri

The Lion in Winter
By James Goldman, directed by Terry Rabine
Home Made Theater, through Feb. 29

The Lion in Winter has always been a fascinating cross between the historical and the domestic. Called a 12th-century version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the real subject isn’t which of the three sons of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine will succeed their father to the throne of England (which at the time included large chunks of France); it’s the dysfunctional dance to the death of their battling parents. In this case, of course, the warring is literal, as the play opens with Eleanor temporarily released from her 10-year-long house arrest, the result of a failed coup by the wily queen and her offspring.

And what a sorry bunch they are. Richard, already dubbed “the Lionhearted,” the eldest of the three and the most qualified to take over the family business, is his mother’s favorite, which puts him in Dad’s doghouse. Henry’s chosen heir is John, a whiny, pimply adolescent 10 years Richard’s junior. Geoffrey, the neglected middle child, is a conniving opportunist. No heroes here.

But what can you expect, given their parentage? Eleanor is a skilled politician and a warrior: She accompanied her first husband, Louis of France, to the Crusades. Henry taunts her by taking the French princess Alais, raised by Eleanor and Henry as the betrothed to Richard, as his latest mistress, prompting her brother Philip, the newly-crowned king of France, to arrive demanding a refund on her dowry. The fact that they are Louis’ children by Eleanor’s replacement makes the situation all the more incestuous.

Author Goldman (who won an Oscar for his 1968 screen adaptation, which starred Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole) has fun with the audience by letting us know his characters know it’s all a game, or a play. They compare themselves to chess pieces, and even review their own performances. There’s even the occasional reference to Hollywood castle-flick cliches.

If any of this motley crew is at all sympathetic, it is, perversely, Eleanor. Though seemingly ready to sacrifice any of the others for her own gain, she also expresses wants that we commoners can understand: love, and the desire for freedom. Goldman has also granted this brilliant and feisty character the choicest zingers in a play full of great laugh lines.

Michelle Summerlin-Yergan makes the most of this meaty role. She rules over all the other players whenever she is onstage—except Henry, who still holds the upper hand, at least militarily. John Mountford, his bearing the royal equivalent of “presidential,” is a believable Henry—nearly, if not quite absolutely, the equal of Eleanor. Mountford and Elizabeth Foster—as his young lover, Alais—also make a believable pair, though Foster is often hard to understand.

Director Terry Rabine has made it easy to keep the three princes straight by casting to type. Spa Catholic junior David Bedard fearlessly embraces the role of the childish Prince John, always half a beat behind the others. As Richard, John O’Neill cuts a dashing figure; he and the dark and mercurial Mark Wheeler as Geoffrey also have several good moments. Jonathan Getnick in the role of Philip gets less to work with, and it shows.

The set, by William E. Fritz, uses soaring stone columns, enhanced by John Miller’s lighting, to suggest castle rooms that are large, empty and cold, rather than rich and opulent. The costumes by Patty Pawliczak are the same: functional, not flashy.

The Lion in Winter is a smartly written play where the verbal pyrotechniques reign. Home Made Theater’s production doesn’t quite bring out all of the flash, but does give a good glimpse of its sparkle.

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